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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.

– 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

sick flu bedWhether it’s courtesy of jet lag’s effect on my body or the sniffling/sneezing/coughing child in the seat behind me, it seems I return home with some sort of cold or sinus issue every time I travel, leaving me feeling like I’ve been hit by a bus.

Enter Sickweather, a website and app that use social media posts to generate alerts that tell you whether illness is running rampant in your area. Simply set alerts for wherever you’re traveling — or for your home town — and be informed when the over-sharers on Facebook start chattering about their (or their children’s) latest maladies. Sickweather CEO Graham Dodge compares the technology used to gather data and tie it to a geographic location to the Doppler radar used to predict weather.

Pros: It’s always nice to know what you’re up against, abroad or in your own backyard. Imagine catching the flu while on vacation because you were unaware it was going around the city you were visiting, or contracting Norovirus during a trip to see Great Aunt Edna at the retirement home because you had no idea there was a local outbreak. It can often be easier to prevent illness than to fight it off after you’ve already gotten sick. The alerts offer solid reminders about hand washing and other precautions. Plus, the service and the app (available for iPhone now and Android later this summer) are both free.

18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling

Cons: Just because an acquaintance of yours tweets that her daughter has strep throat, it doesn’t mean she’s actually had the illness medically diagnosed. But Dodge tells us that with enough people reporting, the occasional misdiagnosis doesn’t matter: “The research of our advisors from Johns Hopkins University has concluded that this anecdotal data has a high correlation to clinical data provided by the CDC.” Right now, the service only gathers social media results that are in English, but Dodge says that the company will branch out as it grows. It’s worth noting that the app’s alerts will be useless if you’re planning to travel abroad with your phone in airplane mode, and although international alerts are available via the app, international maps are still in the works.

Would you try this app? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

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

tour guideThere’s no better way to get to know a new place than by meeting up with a local friend or family member who can show you all the secret hot spots that first-time visitors usually miss. Alas, even the most well-connected travelers can’t possibly have friends everywhere — and that’s where a site like Tripbod.com can help.

The site, founded in 2007 and recently acquired by IndependentTraveler.com’s parent company, TripAdvisor, bills itself as “your friend at the other end.” It helps travelers connect with local experts called Tripbods who can provide trip planning advice, put together a personalized itinerary, or offer unique experiences such as a photo safari in London or lunch in a Moroccan souk.

In some respects the site is like a modern version of a travel agent. One typical listing from a Tripbod in Guayaquil, Ecuador, offers “Skype conversation, emails, advice in how to make the most out of your time, best restaurants, budget hotels, and local operators so that you can develop your own detailed itinerary” for 23 GBP (about $38 USD). For travelers who enjoy planning their own trips, it’s an ideal way to get information and guidance without having to be led around by an actual guide at all times.

Tourist No More: Three Secrets for Traveling Like a Local

If you do want a guide, the site offers that too. There’s an enticing array of experiences and tours ranging from meeting indigenous populations in the highlands of Mexico to cycling through rice fields in Yangshuo, China.

Of course, there are a few caveats. Some of the experiences are on the pricey side — such as a homemade Icelandic dinner outside of Reykjavik featuring lamb, potatoes, salad and dessert for 75 GBP per person (more than $125 USD). I also encountered a few search glitches. When I looked for tours in Wellington, New Zealand, the site turned up results almost everywhere but (New Delhi, San Salvador, Glasgow, Muscat …). And while the site offers a space for past travelers to review each experience, none of the ones I clicked on had received any reviews yet, making it tricky to decide whom to trust.

Still, as a traveler who’s eager to meet locals and find experiences beyond the usual sights, I know I’ll be checking out the site before my next trip.

20 Ways to Blend in with the Locals

Would you give Tripbod a try?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

bellhopEver had a bellhop sweep in to grab your bags even though you’d hoped to carry them yourself (and not have to pay a tip)? You’re not alone. In a recent survey of 2,719 Americans, Travel Leaders Group asked travelers how they cope with this and other common travel dilemmas. Turns out many of us are actually passive in uncomfortable travel situations, and the majority of us tip — even in cases where we’re not quite sure if we’re supposed to.

When it comes to an unoccupied but reserved beach chair, the majority — about 30 percent — would wait more than four hours before claiming it as their own; another 29 percent gave it an hour before calling dibs.

Almost half — 49 percent of respondents — would tip a bellhop if he or she assisted with luggage, even if they didn’t ask for help. Another 32 percent said they would tip, but less than if they had made the request, and 19 percent would not tip.

I was surprised to read that while 35 percent of respondents tip their maid service every day regardless of length of stay, 26 percent never tip.

Tips for Tipping Abroad

When asked what they would do if someone else brought kids to an adults-only pool, 28 percent would alert hotel staff only if the children were being disruptive, and 27 percent would alert hotel staff either way. Only 16 percent would say something directly to the parents. The remaining 29 percent would say nothing.

Disruptive noises while staying at a hotel or resort should be dealt with directly by hotel staff, according to 88 percent of respondents. Nine percent would do nothing, while the remaining three percent would do anything from banging on the wall and calling the room directly to being loud themselves to send the message.

When flying, you may notice the trend is to load your luggage overhead as soon as you board the aircraft so that you can leave quickly and grab your luggage on the way out. However, only 4 percent of survey respondents admitted to doing this. Three quarters of respondents said they try to get as close to their row as possible before stowing their bags overhead. The remaining 21 percent walk to their row and then ask a flight attendant for assistance.

Does Your Flight Attendant Hate You?

Some of these situations I grapple with all the time — how much to tip and when, should I speak up when others are stowing bags at the front of the plane and they’re sitting in the back — but some I’ve honestly never even thought of. I was surprised there were no questions about cutting in line — something I’ve encountered at almost every airport or attraction line I’ve stepped foot in.

What are your travel pet peeves? How have you or would you react in these situations? Share your comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

living roomIt’s easy to see a broken bone, but it’s harder to prove you’re feeling too distraught to travel. So if you or a loved one has ever struggled with mental illness, don’t count on travel insurance being there to reimburse you if your condition adversely affects your trip.

Two recent articles by NPR and Consumerist offer a cautionary tale about a couple who was refused coverage for a canceled trip due to their son’s mental health emergency (after a medication change, his doctor suggested that he not be left alone). Despite a letter of support from the psychiatrist, the couple was denied their $1,800 claim.

Travel Insurance: What You Need to Know

Travel insurance is not included under the Mental Health Parity Act and Affordable Care Act, which now mandates that health plans must cover preventive services like depression screening for adults and behavioral assessments for children at no cost, and that most plans won’t be able to deny coverage or charge more due to pre-existing health conditions, including mental illnesses. In fact, on the CDC’s website it says to be aware of “exclusions regarding psychiatric emergencies or injuries related to terrorist attacks or acts of war” when purchasing travel insurance. That means that unless your ailment is physical in nature, don’t expect anything in return for your turmoil from travel insurance.

According to NPR, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has received about 10 complaints about travel insurance discrimination over the past year. Travel insurance is state-regulated, so policies, fine print and subtleties will vary across the U.S. Some states flat-out do not offer mental health coverage or consider it a pre-existing condition. Options at this time seem limited for anyone who struggles with bouts of anxiety, depression or even loved ones who may require additional care.

To me, the stigma attached to mental illness reflects an outdated taboo about real disorders and serious conditions that affect one in four adults in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In my opinion it is discrimination, and coverage should extend to families who cope with mental health issues as much as it extends to physical ailments. Everyone deserves to travel and not worry about the consequences if they can’t.

Safety and Health Tips for Travelers

What are your thoughts about travel insurance coverage for mental illness? Have you experienced a similar issue with coverage?

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

living roomGrowing up outside of New York City, I’ve spent countless days wandering its buzzing streets and getting lost within what I view as the ultimate metropolitan epicenter. It wasn’t until my college years, though, that I learned about Starbucks’ bathrooms.

The thing about New York is there’s nowhere to stop. In accordance with its fast-paced reputation, unless you’re headed somewhere, there’s rarely a place you can find to slow down. Depending on the part of town, it can even be a challenge to find a proper bench to park yourself long enough to eat a bite.

Something as simple as finding a bathroom became an epic quest before I learned of Starbucks’ open-door policy regarding use of its bathrooms. In my lifetime of exploring The City That Never Sleeps, it’s the only place I can think of that offers this amenity to the public. How tourists survive long days of city sightseeing has always been a mystery to me; if I never figured out New York’s rest stop secrets, how could they have enough stamina to go nonstop without a public toilet or seat in sight?

What Not to Do in a New City

This question is finally being addressed with two startups looking to offer a modicum of privacy and personal resources in an unforgiving urban landscape.

The first goes by the name Breather, and offers just that — a clean, comfortable and private place to breathe where you can make a phone call, eat a snack, hold a meeting or even take a nap — all while Manhattan carries on around you.

The spaces are reserved using a mobile app (or the Web) and can be used for 30 minutes or the entire day. Modestly furnished but modern, the spaces offer natural light and are cleaned after each reservation. Supplies such as pencils, notepads and Wi-Fi are available for use. If you’re thinking of “other things” the rooms can be used for, well, the site covers that in its terms and conditions. Breather spaces are currently available around New York City and Montreal, and they’re headed to San Francisco. Prices vary by location, ranging from $15 to $25 per hour.

Answering nature’s call in a similar fashion, POSH Stow and Go (as seen in The Verge) has plans to become a members-only storage and bathroom facility that offers private access to lockers and personal bathrooms. Set to launch the summer of 2014, POSH offers luggage-laden visitors or weary New Yorkers the chance to use their private facilities for an annual $15 membership fee, in addition to daily pricing that ranges by package — $24 for three days, $42 for six days or $60 for 10 days.

Set to become available in the precious little space of NYC, POSH stresses that its membership offerings are limited and first-come, first-served. If the ultimate in washroom seclusion appeals to you and you find that you’re sick of seeing the inside of every Starbucks, treat yourself to some rare alone time in The Big Apple.

Would you take advantage of a members-only bathroom or reserve a quiet space when visiting a new city? Let us know in the comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel