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gomadic sunvolt solar chargerDo you know someone who’s always on the road or in the air? You could gift that person with the standard inflatable pillow, ear plugs or luggage, but why not surprise him or her with the true comforts and conveniences of home instead? These items are practical and perfect for use on long international trips, from the plane to the hotel and everywhere in between.

KnowRoaming
This is the answer to every international traveler’s biggest problem: roaming charges. KnowRoaming is a prepaid data sticker that attaches to your phone (in a one-time application) and automatically switches to a local provider upon arrival in a new country. You can pay as you go (rates vary by country) and easily manage usage in the app so there aren’t any surprises; for heavy users, unlimited plans are also available for $7.99 per day. A bonus: Your actual phone number shows up when making calls.

Note: Before you buy this for a friend or family member, make sure you know what type of phone he or she has. KnowRoaming doesn’t operate on Blackberries or CDMA phones. Also, phones must be unlocked prior to a trip — this means network restrictions need to be removed so the phone can operate with a different SIM card. Check KnowRoaming.com for restrictions and guidelines by carrier.

Approximate Cost: $30

Gomadic SunVolt
You’ve heard of multi-device chargers that don’t require outlets (if they’ve already been charged by one, of course), but Gomadic SunVolt doesn’t require outlets at any point. Why? It’s powered by solar energy. Up to two devices can charge at a time, and additional lithium polymer batteries can be purchased to store excess energy for nighttime charges.

Approximate Cost: $100

Christmas Markets: Europe and Beyond

Olloclip 4-in-1 Lens System
Maybe your giftee doesn’t want to lug a big camera and multiple lenses around during a three-week tour of Europe. Instead, consider the gift of an Olloclip 4-in1 Lens System (for iPhones). It offers four views: fish-eye, wide-angle and two macro options. It easily clips on to iPhones and comes with two lens caps and a carrying case.

Approximate Cost: $70

Kikkerland Music Branch 3-Way Headphone Splitter
There’s no need to share a set of headphones with this nifty, inexpensive gadget, ideal for traveling duos or trios. This earphone splitter offers three inputs so two or three people can watch a movie or listen to music together on a laptop (rather than squint at those small airplane screens). It’s also useful for couples with napping youngsters in tow.

Approximate Cost: $10

Satechi USB Portable Humidifier v.1
The Satechi USB Portable Humidifier connects to a water bottle and moistens dry air in hotel rooms (or even at home between trips) — perfect for rehydrating your nose and sinuses after a long-haul flight. When filled with cold water, it also acts as a mister to cool you off on hot days. Other functions include dim lighting for nighttime and aroma diffusing — just add liquid fragrances. To operate, plug into a USB port; it automatically shuts off after eight hours.

Approximate Cost: $30

Escape the Cold: 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations

– written by Amanda Geronikos

Every so often, when I’m stuck at home between trips and need a little jolt of wanderlust, I wander over to Vimeo.com and go hunting for travel videos. If I can’t be exploring a new place right now, at least I can spend a few minutes living vicariously through someone else’s footage. And there’s no better inspiration for future trips!

For example, check out this dreamy time-lapse video of the midnight sun in Iceland — I guarantee you’ll want to go.



Also shot in Europe but with an entirely different mood and focus is “Barcelona GO!”, which takes viewers on a frenetic trip around this colorful Spanish city, from narrow medieval lanes to grand cathedrals and concert halls:



This video set in India is so vivid I can practically taste the curry:



I’m ending with my favorite — a gorgeous, contemplative look at Japan in wintertime. Keep an eye out for the Jigokudani snow monkeys.



3 Time-Lapse Videos to Get You in the Mood for Traveling

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Some branding partnerships are questionable — Justin Bieber and perfume, Taco Bell and Doritos — but Pantone’s decision to create a hotel in Brussels just makes sense. Pantone, considered a leading authority on color, built its Belgian hotel in 2010 and as we read up in this post on Fast Company magazine’s website, the rooms are, well, colorful.

pantone room


The Pantone Hotel was designed by architect Olivier Hannaert and decorated by interior designer Michel Penneman. The design is minimalist, but the touches of color extend from a curated photo series for each of the 59 rooms by Belgian photographer Victor Levy to coffee cups, bicycles, even the toilet paper. Stretches of hallway may be tangerine, and here, accent blankets are always intentional.

pantone hotel


9 Amazing Upscale Hostels

toilet paper at Pantone hotel


Part of a larger concept for the company known as Pantone Universe, the hotel is just part of the color swatch experts’ takeover of all things under the rainbow. A color of the year has been selected annually since 2000, and in a partnership with Sephora, a makeup line is created to play up the shade of the year. (You only have one more month to bathe in radiant orchid, or Pantone color 18-3224, before 2015 washes it away.) Online, the number of Pantone-related products colors the spectrum — if you need to brighten your day, visit their website. We’re not sure if the concept will ever become a chain, but if you’re in Brussels and want to experiment with how color might change your mood, the Pantone Hotel has a very specific number and letter for that.

6 More Sweet Hotels in Brussels

breakfast at Pantone hotel


Inspired by Pantone’s imaginative entry into hospitality, which other brands or products would you like to see with overnight accommodations? I think an [insert your favorite brand of coffee here] hotel would allow guests to at least be caffeinated, if not well rested. Share your ideas in the comments.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

eatsmart digital luggage scaleIf you’ve ever gotten to the check-in desk at the airport and been alarmed to discover that your suitcase was overweight, there’s an easy solution: a luggage scale.

While you can always try putting your suitcase on your bathroom scale at home, a luggage scale is an easier and more accurate way to see just how heavy your bag is. As a bonus, you can take it with you on your trip too, so before you head home, you can weigh your bag in your hotel room to figure out whether all those souvenirs you bought will push you over your airline’s weight limit.

We recently took EatSmart’s Precision Voyager Digital Luggage Scale for a spin. The scale is easy to use, with a simple on/off button and a “UNIT” button that toggles between pounds and kilograms.

To weigh your bag, you attach the scale to your suitcase handle using a sturdy strap and buckle. Then you lift the bag for a few seconds until the scale offers a digital reading. It helps that the scale’s handle is big enough for both hands; that makes it easier to lift a heavy bag for the few seconds it takes the scale to display the weight. The scale can handle up to 110 pounds (50 kilograms).

You may be tempted to pack your bag all the way up to the 50-pound limit (which is when most airline overweight fees start kicking in). However, we’d recommend leaving yourself a couple of extra pounds — not only to pack the scale itself, as EatSmart recommends, but also to allow for variation between the scale’s readings and those of the scale at the airport. When we weighed the same bag several times, we got different readings from the Precision Voyager, ranging from 10.9 – 11.2 pounds for an empty suitcase and 28.5 – 28.8 pounds for a full one. Best to leave a little room for error.

7 Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

The scale is currently selling on Amazon.com for $19.95 plus shipping. Want to win one for yourself? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, November 17, 2014. We’ll pick two people at random to win a luggage scale. 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.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

On your next trip, you could go out for a nice, quiet dinner — or you could eat your meal behind bars … or underwater … or in a fancy restroom! At these one-of-a-kind restaurants, it’s not just about the food. In fact, meals take the back burner while ambience and unique entertainment steal the show.

ithaa underwater restaurant maldivesIthaa, Rangali Island, Maldives
Part of Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, this all-glass restaurant is situated underwater, some 16 feet below the surface of the ocean. It features 180-degree views in a small dining room that seats about 12, who are lucky enough to watch sea creatures sailing by as they dine on modern European cuisine.

Food and Travel: The Ultimate Guide


alcatraz er tokyoAlacatraz E.R., Tokyo, Japan
Not that you ever wanted to dine behind bars … but Alcatraz E.R. offers the chance in blood- and body part-splattered jail cells (fake, of course). Guests sip cocktails out of test tubes and mannequin heads, and during meals, you might find the lights going out as “escapees” enter the prison cells.

Photos: 12 Best Japan Experiences


supperclub amsterdamSupperclub, Amsterdam, Netherlands
So maybe you don’t want to dine behind bars, but who doesn’t want to eat in bed? At Supperclub, four-course meals and cocktails are served on mattresses, housed in a dimly lit room. Guests also enjoy live, often interactive entertainment such as burlesque, vaudeville, cabaret and freak shows, along with music and art.

Photos: Best Netherlands Experiences


modern toilet taipeiModern Toilet, Taipei, Taiwan
Normally, you want to avoid a trip to the bathroom following a meal, but at this restaurant, you’ll practically eat in the restroom. Patrons sit on toilets and at tables that resemble bathroom sinks. Meanwhile, more toilets adorn the walls. Drinks are served in glasses that look like urinals, and food is delivered in miniature porcelain thrones (and chocolate ice cream is on the menu).

7 Strange Foods from Around the World

le refuge des fonduesLe Refuge des Fondues, Paris, France
This tourist spot has gained attention for the way it serves wine: in baby bottles. It’s tiny, too — so tiny, in fact, that you might have to jump over a table to access seats along the wall (diners sit together at two long tables). Graffiti is encouraged (the walls are covered with it), and delicious fondue is served.

Photos: 12 Best France Experiences


pink door seattleThe Pink Door, Seattle, U.S.A.
Hidden in an alley at Pike Place Market, the Pink Door isn’t just the name of the restaurant; it’s what you’ll need to search for to find the place (there aren’t any signs). Once inside, you’ll walk down a set of stairs — the restaurant is situated underground — to a small room lit by candles. Delicious Italian fare is served, but the real draw is the entertainment. A trapeze artist twirls and spins overhead on Sundays and Mondays, while Saturdays feature burlesque and cabaret shows.

– written by Amanda Geronikos

travelwise packing cubesIf you consider packing a vocation and allocate every square inch of your suitcase using a color-coded spreadsheet, you’re probably already familiar with packing cubes, those soft-sided little rectangles of happiness that make organizing a snap and ensure you’ll pack light.

For the uninitiated, packing cubes are essentially rectangular zip-close bags that come in various sizes. They help keep clothes from wrinkling because they reduce shifting in luggage, and they allow travelers to make the best use of limited suitcase space.

TravelWise offers a 3-Piece Packing Cube Weekender Set that includes cubes in three sizes, ostensibly for those looking to organize for shorter trip. Here’s how they stacked up on trip in which they were used in conjunction with a standard carry-on suitcase.

Size
The three sizes (11.5 inches by 6.75 inches by 3.75 inches; 13.75 by 9.75 by 3.75; and 17.5 by 12.75 by 4) make organizing simple, with smaller items like undergarments and socks fitting perfectly in the smallest cube and pants and blouses in larger two. All three cubes easily fit into a standard carry-on bag, with room for spare items like shoes.

The biggest cube seems unnecessarily large, though. Maybe I’m just a light packer, but for a weekend trip I probably could’ve left that one at home to make room for other odd-sized items.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Zippers
Confession: I have been known to overpack cubes, leading to a burst zipper or two. TravelWise’s zippers are sturdy and easy to grip, and they pull smoothly. I didn’t test them to their max, but they withstood lots of repeated opening and closing.

Material
Packing cubes are supposed to help you organize your items without bogging you down, so “lightweight” is essential to any materials. Made of nylon, TravelWise’s packing cubes are plenty light, with a mesh panel in the center of each. The mesh helps you identify what is in each cube at a glance so you aren’t stuck digging through to find things. This design also allows airflow, so I was able to pack dirty clothes in them for the return trip. The cubes require handwashing.

Handles
I often leave my clothes in the cubes, then just plop them in a drawer at the hotel when I arrive, so having a handle is a small convenience that makes grab-and-go that much easier. The handles on TravelWise’s cubes are durable, and they stand up to being hung from hangers, showerheads and hooks.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

The Bottom Line
Ultimately, there isn’t a lot of variation in packing cubes from brand to brand. Most high-quality cubes come in various sizes, are made of durable materials and have multiple color options. TravelWise’s cubes are slightly deeper than other brands I’ve used, which will accommodate more clothing without taking up significantly more space in your suitcase. They’re available through online retailers such as Amazon and retail for $39.95.

Want to win a set of gently used red packing cubes? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on October 27, 2014. We’ll pick one person at random to win the bag. 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.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Roanne Coplin, who will receive a set of gently used packing cubes. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further chances to win.

– written by Colleen McDaniel

ebags exo suitcaseOn a recent 10-day trip to Norway, I packed everything but the kitchen sink into one of eBags’ EXO 2.0 24-inch spinner suitcases. If you’ve been considering a new piece of luggage, you’ll want to read on — not just for a rundown of my experience with the bag but also for a chance to win an EXO 2.0 of your very own.

Exterior
Liked: The exterior of the EXO 2.0 is made of polycarbonate, which means it’s insanely durable. The case I tested made it through four flights with only minor scratches, thanks to the crosshatch-type pattern on the shell, which helps to reduce the visibility of such mishaps.

Didn’t Like: Although functional, the crosshatch exterior design doesn’t exactly look nice. I was initially excited when I learned the bag I’d be trying was red, but I quickly discovered red isn’t as uncommon on airport conveyor belts as you might think. I’d recommend trying one of the other available bright colors like purple or yellow. (Standard colors like black and gray are options too.)

Interior
Liked: There’s a ton of space, and I found that the main compartment’s straps helped to keep my abundance of clothing contained. A separate compartment, offset by a full swath of zippable mesh, was great for separating everything from shoes to dirty laundry from the rest of my stuff.

Didn’t Like: There are no additional pockets or compartments, which can make the packing of smaller items a challenge. eBags touts the fact that the EXO 2.0’s main compartment has a removable, adjustable shelf (attached to the interior of the suitcase via Velcro) to keep packed items from shifting or crushing each other. I didn’t find it to be all that useful because I packed enough to ensure no shifting would take place. It might come in handy for separating clean clothes from dirty ones or your clothes from those of a travel companion if you’re sharing luggage.

Wheels
Liked: The wheels are durable with a double-wheel construction, which means that your bag is less likely to tip over if you leave it upright.

Didn’t Like: Because of the dual-wheel configuration, the suitcase has a wider base, making it a little more difficult to maneuver than one with a single-wheel design. But the wider base is also what keeps the bag from toppling over, so it’s a trade-off.

Handles
Liked: All handles (adjustable handle used for dragging and top/side handles used for lifting) are sleek in appearance and are nearly flush with the sides of the case for a streamlined look. Plus, the extendable handle used for pulling the bag adjusts to three different heights.

Didn’t Like: Because the handles are recessed with little clearance, it can be difficult to get your fingers under them to lift luggage in a hurry (for example, grabbing your bag off of the conveyor belt). Combine that with the suitcase’s rough crosshatch exterior, and you’ve got a recipe for skinned knuckles. I also found the extendable handle to be a little on the flimsy side, given the overall size of the luggage.

Lock
ebags exo suitcase zippers lockLiked: As someone who routinely uses removable luggage locks, I love the idea of a suitcase that’s got a lock built in. No more worrying about losing the lock or fumbling to be sure it’s passed through both zippers when you try to re-secure everything. The built-in version is TSA-friendly, and the instructions for using it are a piece of cake.

Didn’t Like: Although setting the lock’s combination was easy, it took me a few minutes to figure out that the zipper pulls actually slide into openings to the right of the lock in order to secure the case. Beyond that, it took me even longer to discover that the only way to keep the zipper from partially gaping when locked (leaving a small opening into the main suitcase compartment) is to crisscross the zippers and then secure them. (The bag’s specs do mention that it has “patent-pending cross-over X zipper pullers,” but I had no idea what that meant.)

Overall
The EXO 2.0 is a durable, lightweight suitcase that offers some innovative features with the crisscross zippers, interior shelf and crosshatch exterior design. It’s currently available on the eBags website for $160, and it comes with a lifetime eBags warranty, exchange or return. In spite of the minor issues I had, it’s a solid choice overall.

If you’d like to enter to win a brand-new EXO 2.0 hardside suitcase, leave us a message in the comments by 11:59 p.m. ET on September 1, 2014. We’ll pick one winner at random. 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.

If you can’t wait until we pick a winner to do some eBags shopping, click here to get 15 percent off your purchase and free shipping on orders of more than $49. This discount is good through September 4, 2014.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Andrew P. Stay tuned for more chances to win!

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

woman staring out airport windowThe dreaded airport layover has happened to us all — I’m not talking an hour to grab a snack in between flights; I’m talking mind-numbing half-days. Sure, there are shops and sometimes even massage centers and airport gardens to pass the time, but if you’re an antsy traveler like I am, you’re staring longingly out the window and wondering what new adventures await beyond the tarmac. Unfortunately, exploring a new city in a short amount of time with a lot of unknowns can be just cause for hesitation — get lost, get back late, and another long wait for a new flight might befall you.

Luckily for impatient but practical explorers like us, a number of major cities around the world actually offer tours designed to fit within the span of a layover, and get this: some of them are completely free.

Istanbul: Anyone flying through Turkey’s best-known city with a layover of six hours or more is welcome to a historical jaunt about town, free of charge with Turkish Airlines tour operator Touristanbul. Sites include the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar.

London: Self-proclaimed “original founders of the layover tour,” London Magical Tours aims to whisk you away from Heathrow or Gatwick on a customized tour of London, Windsor, Hampton Court or Oxford. A private chauffeur may be a nice way to escape to the city, but these tours aren’t free — a price quote will depend on the needs of your group.

Singapore: While Changi Airport is renowned for being one of the world’s best, that shouldn’t stop you from seeing what’s beyond it. If you have just four hours to kill between flights, you can join the Free Singapore Tour, presented by Singapore Airlines in partnership with the airport. During your two-hour guided tour you will see the world’s tallest observation wheel, the Singapore Flyer; Gardens by the Bay, an arrangement of three spectacular waterfront gardens; Chinatown; Little India; the Colonial District and more. If you have four and a half hours, consider the City Lights Tour — Singapore sightseeing by night.

Best Airports for Layovers

Reykjavik: Turn your layover in Iceland into a mini-vacation. Icelandair allows passengers to turn layovers into a stopover of up to seven days — for no extra cost. That means a few days, not just hours, to tour Reykjavik and its surrounding sights (hey, you might never be back in Iceland). Tour operator Reykjavik Excursions provides day tours with pick-up from the airport. Popular options include a guided city tour and a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Prices vary by package.

Beijing: An eight- to 14-hour layover in China’s capital city is no sweat with a Beijing Layover Tour. Starting from $60 per person, spend the day with a private tour guide and driver to visit a number of themed destinations such as “Olympic Sites” or “Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City.” The value is not as great — just a limited number of stops for the price — but unless you speak the language, a tour is your best way to see some of the things China is famous for, without having to navigate it yourself. (And it beats reading magazines all day in an airport chair.)

9 Ways to Make the Most of Your Layover

Bogota: All you need is five hours to take a layover tour of Bogota, Colombia, with Bogotravel Tours. For a fee, this local tour operator will arrange pick-up and drop-off at the airport, and provide a day trip showcasing the capital’s social, historical and political centers — and, of course, an opportunity to grab a cup of coffee. If you’ve had your share of sitting and want to stretch your legs a bit before flying out, try one of Bogotravel’s bike tours.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Would you pay $1,013 for a salad? How about $2,700 for sushi?

These exorbitant dishes and many others are on a “menu” of the world’s most expensive food, put together by Chris Sibbet of FinancesOnline.com. Sibbet scoured the globe to find lavish offerings like the aforementioned salad, which is made of “beluga caviar, grated truffle, potatoes with gold leaf, Cornish crab and lobster and 30-year-old balsamic vinegar” and can be ordered at the Hempel Hotel in London.

If you’d rather drop a few grand on sushi, head to Angelito Areneta’s Golden Sushi in Manila, where the fish is wrapped in 24-carat gold and crowned with three pearls.

The total cost for all the decadent dishes rounded up by Sibbet (many of which were created as fundraisers for charity) adds up to a whopping $95,065. Bon apetit!

The Most Expensive Dishes In The World: How To Plan The Pricest Meal Ever

Republished from alternatives.financesonline.com — Published by Chris Sibbet — See our Vimeo

International Foods to Try Before You Die
12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies

– written by Sarah Schlichter

solo traveler on horsebackWe’ve written often about the joys of traveling alone, including the freedom to decide what you want to do and the greater opportunity to meet new people. But going solo always has an element of risk to it as well, and that’s where a new site called My Important Information can help.

One of the dangers of traveling by yourself is that if you’re in an emergency and unable to communicate with first responders or doctors, there’s no one else to convey your wishes or share pertinent information about your allergies and medical history. My Important Information is a subscription service that allows you to enter this type of personalized data into an online profile featuring as much or as little as you wish to share. Emergency contacts, medications, physician info, medical conditions, allergies and even the location of your living will can all be uploaded to the site.

The $30 annual membership fee includes a wallet-friendly card with a QR code that can be scanned by a smartphone, as well as an emergency code that can be entered into the My Important Information website. Either option allows first responders, hospital staff and the like to access data that could save your life in an emergency.

The service isn’t just useful for travelers; you also get a window sticker and two refrigerator cards for your home, which are especially useful if you live by yourself.

Hotel Safety Tips

One caveat for international travelers: There’s currently no translation feature on the site, so if the person reading your profile doesn’t speak English, the information may not do him or her any good. A spokesperson for the site tells us that a translator is an enhancement that may be added in the future, with Spanish as the likely first option. In the meantime, because you can change your profile at any time, you may want to tailor it before each trip. If you’re headed to Brazil, for example, you can copy and paste the most important info into a service such as Google Translate and get a rough Portuguese translation to add to your profile.

You can cancel your membership at any time; if you don’t, the service will automatically renew (and charge your credit card) each year.

Want to give it a try? My Important Information is offering a special discount to IndependentTraveler.com readers. Enter the code IT10 when signing up, and you’ll get 10 percent off the $30 annual fee. (Future renewals will maintain the discount.)

15 Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling Solo

– written by Sarah Schlichter