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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.

How to Create the Perfect Itinerary
What Not to Do in a New City

— 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.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster
10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security

— 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?

The 12 Best Travel Gadgets for Any Trip
Which Travel Clothes Are Worth the Money?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Are you an expert in packing light? You could use a new app called Airmule to sell the extra space in your suitcase. You’ll be serving as a “mule” — or personal courier — for shipments arranged through the app.

airmule


Here’s how it works: You download the Airmule app (which is currently only available on iOS), list your trip — including the flight details and how much suitcase space you wish to sell — and wait for a shipment inquiry to come in. Once you accept the inquiry, Airmule will make sure you get the delivery item before your flight, either by mailing it to you or bringing it to you in person. In most cases another Airmule representative will meet you at your destination airport to pick up the item and forward it to its final destination. (In other cases you may need to arrange a transfer once you arrive.)

Airmule works with TSA-certified shipping companies and inspects all items before they’re given to you. Packages are insured up to $200.

Travelers serving as mules earn $150 per luggage space, minus a $1 processing fee. Sell space in two suitcases on a roundtrip flight, and you could make nearly $600 on your trip — perhaps enough to pay for the whole flight!

While it sounds like an easy way to make money while traveling, there’s one drawback: The service is currently only available for shipping between the United States and China.

When we tested the app, we were able to see available mules for other trips, such as New York to London. We reached out to Airmule about the issue, and a spokesperson responded: “Though we do allow people to list travel anywhere, we currently actively support only U.S. and China. We will support additional countries very soon. This is because we want to ensure a high volume of shipments for travelers when we open a new channel.”

So if a trip to the Great Wall is on your bucket list, keep the app in mind as a way to earn money toward your vacation. Otherwise, you may have to wait for the service to expand in the future. Learn more at Airmule.com.

Would you try Airmule?

11 Things Not to Do on a Plane
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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