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Each time I visit New York, I try to embed myself in a different part of the city. Every neighborhood has a different personality, and getting to know more of them has given me a broader appreciation of the greatest city in the world.

traveler with smartphone


For my latest jaunt, I selected the Lower East Side as my base. Two days would never be enough to wander the whole neighborhood and find the best spots to feed my interests in local history and food, so I turned to a newly revamped app to guide me.

Trip.com was my best buddy that weekend, providing personalized recommendations I could have only figured out through hours of advance research — time I didn’t have. At Trip.com’s recommendation, I took a 90-minute Lower East Side walking tour via the Tenement Museum that brought my fuzzy high school memory of U.S. immigrant history back to life. I wandered through the floor-to-ceiling aisles of Economy Candy, a sweets shop in business since 1937. I gorged on fresh arepas at a tiny Venezuelan restaurant and sampled Swedish breakfast pastries for the first time. And I took in an $11, hourlong improv comedy show.

How did Trip.com know these spots were right up my alley? When you download the free app and set up your account, you select from among 20 “tribes” that describe your personality and travel style. I selected “arty,” “foodies” and “local.” Other tribes include “luxury,” “adventure,” “families” and “spiritual.”

trip.com screenshot


Recommendations pop up based on your location and the reviews of others with your same travel interests. For example, 98 percent of other app-using foodies and 87 percent of other travelers who like local spots enjoyed the Essex Street Market, so I popped in there to have lunch one day. Eight-six percent of other arty people liked a gift shop called Alphabets.

I added my own reviews and also created “postcards” (though it wasn’t exactly clear to me what the difference was between the two). With each review or postcard you add, you gain points and badges, if you’re competitive about tracking that sort of thing.

Trip.com has incorporated technologies that also make recommendations based on the local weather. If it’s raining one day, the app won’t give you outdoor suggestions. And in 15 cities, the app provides a calendar of special events. I plan to use this in my own home city too — it sounds quite useful.

Let the TripScout App Be Your City Guide
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— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

While renting an Airbnb property in 2015, Stefan Grant and a group of friends received a visit from a pair of police officers. The officers told him that neighbors had reported the house was being robbed, Grant said.

stefan grant noirbnb


An innocent mistake or a case of discrimination? Grant and his friends, who are black, said they were certain it was the latter. Following the attention he received after a Twitter post about the incident went viral, Grant had an in-person meeting with Airbnb executives to talk about discrimination and how the company could better serve his community.

In response to a multitude of reports of discrimination based on race, age, gender and other factors, Airbnb implemented new policies and procedures in September 2016.

But Grant was not satisfied. He and a partner thus have decided to start their own short-term rental company, Noirbnb, which aims to provide welcoming and safe spaces for black travelers and for anyone who may have faced discrimination in the past.

Grant chatted with us about the company he’s soon to launch.

Independent Traveler: Where are you in terms of the company development?
Stefan Grant:
We’re very close to our full launch. We have a few thousand properties so far, and more are signing up every day.

IT: Why is a service like this important for travelers?
SG:
I think a service like Noirbnb is important because it understands and caters to the unique experiences of black travelers and other travelers of color. It also provides a space for accepting people of all walks of life to connect with each other and build awesome new relationships.

IT: Do you think the changes Airbnb implemented last year to make its service more “colorblind” have been effective?
SG:
I don’t think they have been effective because we still see instances of rampant discrimination taking place on Airbnb all the time. I also don’t think that people should be “colorblind.” People should see people for who they are because our uniqueness is what makes the world a more beautiful place, and to blind ourselves to that is dismissive and counterproductive.

IT: Tell us a little about some of the property owners who have signed up so far.
SG:
We have a variety of different properties, from large homes and villas to apartments, condos and even a boat. Many people who’ve signed up with us tell us they love our mission and what we’re setting out to do. Our hosts come in all facets, and it means the world to us that they want to be part of what we’re building at Noirbnb.

woman on sofa


IT: What else will be different from your competitors?
SG:
We have a few differentiators that we plan on rolling out that will separate us from our competitors. But we don’t want to give away too much of our “secret sauce” before we launch.

IT: Is your aim to attract black-owned properties or black-friendly properties? Or both?
SG:
Our goal is to attract black-owned properties as well as black-friendly properties.

IT: Do you anticipate that other groups of people who face discrimination, such as gay travelers or travelers of other ethnic backgrounds, will be drawn to use your service too?
SG:
We do anticipate that people of other ethnic backgrounds or members of the LGBT community will gravitate toward us because in many ways our experiences overlap and intersect. We also created Noirbnb for them because we want our platform to really be a diverse and welcoming community where people can feel free to be themselves.

IT: Once the site is up and running, where’s the first place that you want to book?
SG:
Once the site is up and running, I think I’d like to visit Cuba, South Africa or London. Those places are so beautiful and culturally diverse. They’ve been calling me for a while.

See more travel interviews!

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— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

When I travel, my smartphone acts as my camera, wallet, GPS, e-reader, MP3 player, communication center, and means of streaming movies and TV on long flights. Without it, my trips are far more cumbersome, but the more I use it, the more quickly the “low battery” notifications roll in.

mycharge hubxtra portable charger


Over the years, I’ve tried several portable chargers — tiny energy packs that are plugged into the wall ahead of time and brought along as a means of backup power. No matter how long I charged them, none ever seemed to be able to properly refuel my phone in a reasonable amount of time.

Enter the MyCharge HubXtra. This lightweight portable charger took my phone’s battery life from 6 to 60 percent in 45 minutes, with a full charge after about two hours. The best part is that, afterward, the HubXtra itself was still at 75 percent power.

What We Liked
It worked. There’s not much worse than investing in a product only to find out it doesn’t live up to the hype — especially in a pinch. Not only did the HubXtra do its job, but it did so quickly.

It has a long life. In addition to holding enough juice for more than one charge when it’s at capacity, the HubXtra comes fully powered up, so you can use it right out of the package. (The device charges via a standard two-pronged plug that folds out from the back.)

It’s versatile. In addition to cell phones, the HubXtra can charge other electronics like tablets, e-readers, MP3 players, wearables and Bluetooth speakers.

It can power up more than one device at a time, even while plugged in. The charger comes with two built-in lightning micro-USB cable connections — one that fits most recent iPhones and one for most recent Android devices — and they can both be used at the same time, even when the HubXtra itself is charging.

It’s easy to pack. Measuring 4.1 x 2.5 x 0.9 inches and weighing a mere half-pound, the HubXtra will fit in nearly any bag, and it looks as sleek as it sounds.

What We Didn’t Like
It’s expensive. The HubXtra retails for $69.99 on the MyCharge website and $54.95 on Amazon. Considering how many chargers are available at a price point of $30 or less, it’s a little pricey.

It could soon be obsolete. A tech savvy-friend with one of the most recently released Android devices was unable to use the HubXtra without an adapter because it doesn’t offer the most updated cables. For the price, it should.

It only comes in one color. This is a minor quibble, but give us some color! Although the power pack’s metallic silver finish gives it a sleek, industrial look, a choice of one hue simply isn’t enough.

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–written by Ashley Kosciolek

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.

Looking to pack lighter? You can save some space in your suitcase by storing your stuff in the clothes you wear. SCOTTeVEST offers a line of vests, jackets, pants and other clothing specifically designed with tons of pockets to help you stow gadgets and other essential items on your person instead of in a purse or backpack.

scottevest quest vest


I tested out the SCOTTeVEST Q.U.E.S.T., a vest that boasts a whopping 42 pockets, to see what it offers for travelers. Here’s what I discovered.

What We Liked
It’s cleverly designed. The designers clearly put a lot of thought into the layout of the Q.U.E.S.T., with pockets specifically meant for items such as cell phones, passports, tablets, glasses and pens. (Most of these compartments are labeled with little graphics so you can tell what’s supposed to go where.) Then there are dozens of catch-all pockets for everything else. Some are more useful than others — I’m not sure exactly what you’d want to put in the large back compartment, given that most items wouldn’t be all that comfortable to lean back on when you sit down — but there are plenty of pockets to customize in any way you see fit.

It’s attractive and well made. The vest feels well crafted and has a sleek, attractive look.

It’s water-resistant. When I poured water on both the hood and the body of the vest, it beaded up and ran right off.

There are tons of little surprises. Open the RFID-blocking pocket, and you’ll find a little document pouch that you can remove and then Velcro back in. The glasses pocket offers a soft cloth for wiping your lenses. There are holes and loops throughout to thread cords for earbuds or chargers.

It’s not just good for travel. Sure, the vest can save you space on vacation, but it’s also useful at home for day hikers who don’t want to carry a backpack or women who want to go shopping without lugging a heavy purse.

scottevest quest vest


What We Didn’t Like
It gets bulky. Realistically most travelers won’t use all 42 pockets; once you start putting in things like a full-size water bottle or multiple gadgets, the vest starts looking bulky and less flattering. If you do plan to use most of the pockets, you might want to order a size larger than you normally would to give yourself a little more space.

You may lose track of some of your things. There are so many pockets so close to each other — some divided only by a thin layer of fabric — that I sometimes forgot where I’d put certain items. In one case I could feel that there was a bottle of antibacterial hand gel in a certain quadrant of the vest, but I had to try about three different zippers before I could access the pocket I needed.

There’s only one color option. Other vests from SCOTTeVEST come in hues like blue, white and red, but the Q.U.E.S.T. is currently only available in black for women. (Men can buy the Q.U.E.S.T. in black or beige.)

It’s not cheap. The Q.U.E.S.T. is currently on sale for $175 at the SCOTTeVEST website and at Amazon. (To buy the men’s version, see the SCOTTeVEST website or Amazon.)

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— 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.

Coping with a mental illness like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression can sometimes be so difficult that it prevents you from traveling. At other times, the illness is managed well enough that you can travel, but the challenging feelings still tag along like an unwanted companion. A day at the beach, for instance, feels like anything but.

illustration of traveling with depression


“Traveling feels like you’re making a huge mistake,” says writer Lauren Juliff, who suffers from severe anxiety. “Everyone says to trust your intuition when you travel, but I had to learn to silence the voice in my head that was always telling me that something was going to go seriously wrong.”

Juliff, who has been traveling steadily since 2011 and writes about her experiences on her website Never Ending Footsteps, is among those featured in an online collection of illustrations that show what it’s like to travel while suffering from symptoms of a mental illness.

The images drive home how isolating it can be to travel when you aren’t feeling at your peak. If you’re traveling for pleasure, you’re supposed to be happy and having fun. If you’re traveling for work, you’re supposed to be sharp and at your best.

illustration of traveling with anxiety


English artist Loren Conner took on the project because it touched her in personal ways. She has dealt with anxiety and depression since her teens, and people close to her have also coped with a variety of mental illnesses. Her illustrations were featured in a Staysure article on traveling with mental illness.

“I am aware of the difficulties and struggles people suffering can go through in their day-to-day life,” said Conner, who lives outside of London. “I knew I had to portray and translate all these feelings as best as I could for people to connect and understand them and realize they’re not alone in their experiences.”

Having such struggles doesn’t mean you need to just stay home. You still can travel, but you need to prepare yourself for what you might encounter.

illustration of traveling with ptsd


“For me planning is key. This carries across to when I’m actually on holiday, so I can mentally prepare for any tricky situations that could arise,” says 18-year-old Ellen White, who writes about obsessive-compulsive disorder at Ellen’s OCD Blog.

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Do you have similar challenges? Share your tips in the comments below.

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Travelers who spend a lot of time exploring cities and riding public transportation have natural concerns about pickpockets. While the best way to protect your valuables is to stow them in a money belt hidden under your clothes, you don’t want to expose it each time you need to pay for a coffee or buy a souvenir — and that’s where the Rogue Front Pocket Wallet comes in.

rogue front pocket wallet


Because front pockets tend to be deeper, they’re considered a safer spot to stow your wallet than back pockets if you’re looking to deter thieves. The Rogue Front Pocket Wallet is designed with a curved shape so it fits more naturally into a front pocket; you are supposed to put the pointy end down and the curved part out. How does it work? I asked my husband and frequent travel partner to give it a try.

What We Liked
It feels well made. The wallet is constructed of real leather and appears sturdy and well stitched.

It fits comfortably. My husband used the wallet in several different pairs of pants and didn’t have any issues with how it fit.

It blocks RFID skimming. Although experts disagree on just how much of a threat RFID skimming actually is, this is still a nice security feature just in case.

It’s made in Maine. Americans sick of seeing “made in China” on every product can support a homegrown business with this purchase.

What We Didn’t Like
There’s some wasted space. The way the wallet is stitched means that the pocket for bills and receipts isn’t as wide as it looks, with what feels like a couple of inches of space sealed off. While U.S. bills fit fine, my husband had to fold quite a few longer receipts instead of sliding them in flat, making the wallet bulk up quickly.

rogue front pocket wallet


It takes up more space than many other wallets. Because of the curved design, the Rogue wallet is taller (5 inches) than a lot of standard men’s wallets. My husband’s old trifold wallet fit just as well in his front pocket (where he’s worn it for years), and because it was smaller he was able to get it deeper into the pocket — which might be an even better hedge against theft.

It has adequate but not plentiful storage. There are three slots that hold up to six cards, plus a see-through ID pocket, another pocket for miscellaneous items, and a larger compartment for bills and receipts. There’s plenty of room for the basics, but men who carry a lot of cards might prefer a few more slots.

Rogue Industries offers a variety of front pocket wallets as well as money clips, women’s bags, women’s clutches and more. The classic front pocket wallet that we tested retails for $45 at the Rogue website or $40 at Amazon.

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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.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Hiking in Alaska? Strolling around Singapore? No matter the type of trip, a good daypack is a vital part of any traveler’s arsenal. I recently tested out the Matador Freerain24, a daypack that can be rolled up into a small storage bag when you’re not using it. Is this the right backpack for you? Read on.

matador freerain24 daypack


What We Liked
It’s waterproof. Aside from the front and side pockets, the bag is well sealed and will protect your stuff in a rainstorm.

It’s lightweight and space-efficient. The bag weighs just 5.5 ounces and folds up into a drawstring bag that fits in the palm of your hand.

It’s stronger than it seems. The fabric is so thin that I worried it would tear easily. But while the tag cautions users to keep the bag away from “abrasive surfaces and sharp objects,” I attempted to stab it with a pen and found it more puncture-resistant than it initially seemed.

It holds a lot. For such a lightweight pack, it holds more than you might expect. The main compartment has a 24-liter capacity, and I was able to get several garments into it along with books, snacks and a couple of bottles of water with no problem.

What We Didn’t Like
There aren’t many pockets. The main part of the bag is a single large compartment, with no internal pockets or slots to keep things organized. There is a vertical pocket on the front of the bag as well as two pockets on the sides for water bottles or other items.

It’s a little tricky to put back in the bag. If you struggle to refold a map or to squeeze everything back into your suitcase at the end of a trip, you might also have a hard time rolling this backpack into the right shape and size to fit back into its little storage bag.

matador freerain24 daypack


There’s no sternum strap. Many travelers rely on a strap across the chest to help stabilize the shoulder straps and balance the weight of the pack. That may or may not matter with such a lightweight daypack, but if a sternum strap is important to you, then you’ll need to add one yourself to the Freerain24.

It’s a little pricey. At $59.99, the Freerain24 costs more than many other daypacks on the market.

You can purchase the Freerain24 at the Matador website.

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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.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

A recent business trip to South America left me with two unexpectedly free days in Buenos Aires. I welcomed the free time but was overwhelmed by the abundance of places to see and things to do in only two days. Should I visit art museums? Waste away an afternoon in a cafe or wander the streets? Where could I eat steak among locals instead of tourists?

woman on cell phone in buenos aires


To help me narrow down my choices, I turned to the new travel app TripScout.

Think of TripScout as a worldly, trustworthy friend who has spent a lot of time in the city you’re visiting. The night before your trip, your friend cuts apart your guidebook and hands you only the pages about sights worth seeing.

TripScout provides highly curated lists of activities, sights, restaurants and hotels in 50 major cities around the world (with more cities being added regularly). The app is ideal for travelers who are overwhelmed by an infinite number of options and for those who don’t have time to fully research a destination.

Buenos Aires Travel Guide

I stayed at a TripScout-recommended hotel and was pleased with its accurate description and location. While walking through Buenos Aires’ main plaza, I turned to the city guide to learn a bit of history about the pink-hued executive mansion called Casa Rosada. Thinking it was a government building, I definitely would have walked right past the neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana had TripScout not informed me it was actually the church where Pope Francis was archbishop. I went in and saw some of the most gorgeous stained-glass windows I’ve ever seen.

At the app’s recommendation, I visited the famous Recoleta Cemetery, the first public cemetery in Buenos Aires and the final resting place of Eva Peron and other famous locals. I arrived at the cemetery 30 minutes before closing and was grateful to listen to the app’s two-minute audio overview. That let me maximize my time, photographing the oversized, ornate mausoleums instead of staring at my phone or flipping through a book to figure out what I was seeing.

Another great aspect of this app is its offline maps. I didn’t want to waste my limited international phone data searching for maps online, nor did I want to brand myself a tourist and make myself a target of petty crime by using a paper map in public.

Although TripScout is free to download, it includes only very basic information. The real value is in the individual city guides, which cost $0.99 to $2.99 to download.

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— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Before you head to the airport for a flight, it’s a wise idea to check how long you should expect to wait at the security checkpoint. Knowing this info ahead of time can help you decide if you should depart earlier than you planned and get you mentally prepared if there’s a long queue.

woman on phone at airport


Unfortunately, it’s hard to know where to find this information. The Transportation Security Administration provides updates on its website, but the data isn’t updated consistently, and it only covers U.S. airports. Major airports with their own apps and Twitter feeds generally don’t provide real-time checkpoint wait times.

A number of travel tech companies are trying to do better, feeding historic data into super-secret algorithms to determine airport security wait times and making that info available in apps. Using Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as an example, I took a look at a few of these free airport security apps — along with the TSA’s website — to see how they compare.

My TSA: The TSA has a simple-to-use website called “View Security Wait Times.” But the agency relies on fliers to provide updates, and that isn’t happening often enough. On Monday evening, for example, the wait time at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport hadn’t been updated on TSA’s website in six hours. Was there still only a 10-minute wait at the main checkpoint? It’s impossible to know.

flightSpeak: This app provides security wait times plus maps, dining options, Wi-Fi info and direct links to airport Twitter accounts for hundreds of airports around the world. On the main page for Atlanta on flightSpeak, it showed Atlanta’s wait time as 10 to 20 minutes. Yet this was not wholly accurate.

If you happen to click on that timespan on the app — there’s no prompt to click on it; I just happened to touch that feature when exploring the page — it shows a new page explaining that the 10- to 20-minute wait is the aggregate time for the entire airport. It then breaks down wait times according to five checkpoint locations. The main checkpoint, it says, is actually a 30- to 40-minute wait. So the wait could potentially be four times longer than I had been expecting. And I don’t know when the data was last updated, because it doesn’t say.

MiFlight: This savvy app crowdsources wait times at more than 150 airports. When I selected Atlanta’s Concourse F, in the international terminal, MiFlight told me the wait was 30 minutes, with info updated within the past five minutes.

The app is pretty in its design and singular in its purpose, but it took me a few tries to figure out how to navigate.

Fleet: This crowdsourced app provides info on a few dozen major airports. When I entered a late-night flight from Atlanta to Santiago, Chile, the app told me that my particular Delta flight has a history of being on time 93 percent of the time, then revealed that the check-in desk and security lines were “not crowded.” As of when? And how do you define “not crowded”? It was hard to know.

Strangely enough, though, I felt a greater comfort level with the vaguer description than I did with other apps’ specific time frames.

The app goes on to provide additional helpful details about the flight, including flying time, the cost of checked bags, even how much carbon I used for this flight.

Bottom line: None of these sources seems 100 percent trustworthy 100 percent of the time. Use them as a general guideline, but continue to follow best practices for domestic and international departures based on when you’re flying.

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— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Ever wanted to read in bed at a hotel without waking your spouse, or needed a little extra light while working on a crossword puzzle during a long flight? If so, you might like the Beam n Read.

beam n read reading light


I tested two versions of this personal reading light — the LED 6 Hands-Free Task Light and the LED 3 Hands-Free Travel & Reading Light. Both run on four AA batteries (not included) and are worn around your neck on an elastic cord that can be adjusted for length. The LED 3 is a less expensive travel version with only three small LED bulbs, while the LED 6 has six bulbs and casts a wider glow.

You can turn on each device by flipping the light into position for reading. The LED 6 has a switch that toggles between turning on all six bulbs and turning on just three, which is useful if you don’t always want quite as much light.

Both reading lights come with two filters — one red, one orange. These are designed to block out blue light, which can cause eyestrain. Using one of these filters makes for a dimmer light that some users find relaxing, especially before bed.

After testing each light in a dark room, I found them both adequate for reading or other handheld tasks (such as knitting or writing), but, unsurprisingly, the wider LED 6 was better for illuminating a whole open book or magazine. Because both lights use the same number of batteries, there’s very little difference in size or weight between them — so if you can spare the extra $10, I’d recommend getting the larger version. It won’t take up much extra space in your suitcase, and you’ll get more light.

The one advantage of the LED 3 model is that the batteries will last longer. That said, you can purchase a USB/AC power kit (sold separately) that enables you to plug the light into a wall socket when available, saving the batteries for when they’re necessary.

You can learn more about Beam n Read at ReadingLight.com. You can also purchase on Amazon: see the LED 6 ($29.95), the LED 3 ($19.95) and the USB/AC Power Kit ($14.95).

Would you try the Beam n Read?

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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.

— written by Sarah Schlichter