Let’s say you’ve always dreamed of ringing in the New Year in Times Square, and you’ve always wanted to stay at the New York Marriott Marquis, with its revolving restaurant and stone’s throw location to the famous midnight ball drop. You go online to make a booking, only to find that all 1,900+ rooms are sold out. A dozen booking websites return the same frustrating result.
If you’re truly determined to get a room in that hotel, you can spend hour after obsessive hour scouring the Internet trying to nab a cancellation. Or you could let a new website do the work for you.
Type in your desired hotel and travel dates, and Open Hotel Alert will send you a simple email or text message as soon as a room opens up. You then click on a provided link to reserve the room on Booking.com, the site’s affiliate partner.
There are a number of scenarios where this service could prove useful:
– If you’ve saved up all your loyalty points to use on your honeymoon at a specific beach resort, but the property is sold out.
– You’re going to a popular conference in a large city, but all of the hotels near the convention center are booked. Set up alerts for all of the hotels in the vicinity of the conference, and you’ll receive a notice if one of them opens up.
– You’re planning on having client meetings at your hotel and really wanted a suite, but only standard rooms are available. The notification you receive from Open Hotel Alert will tell you which room types have opened up.
Open Hotel Alert has more than one million properties programmed into its site, according to its founder, Mark Downs. And as with similar sites like Hotel Room Alerts, there’s no additional fee to use Open Hotel Alert.
Christine Ha’s visit to Ho Chi Minh City was a sensory carnival. Street vendors selling everything from fruit to cell phone cases competed for attention with the buzzing of motorbikes and their ever-tooting horns. The air smelled of cooked crab and ripe jackfruit. Rain fell intermittently, and the maze-like sidewalks were packed with people.
For a trip to an Asian city full of life, Ha’s colorful description is what you might expect. But one thing is missing from her travelogue: what she saw. That’s because the Houston-based cook and New York Times bestselling cookbook author has a condition called neuromyelitis optica, which has led to a nearly complete loss of sight.
Ha’s experience has been included in a new online collection of travel stories by visually impaired or blind travelers. The collection includes stories from people of all walks of life and with varying degrees of visual impairment. An Indonesian artist named Alby Letoy was then commissioned to interpret the stories, illustrating them in a dream-like way.
“The end goal is to start a discussion about people who experience travel in a different way to the majority of us and to encourage everyone, both sighted and visually impaired, to go out and enjoy what the world has to offer,” says Olivia Wiltshire, who works for the London-based agency Builtvisible and collaborated with the travel company Travel Supermarket on the project.
The collection includes interpretations of a New York City jazz singer’s time in the Adirondacks, the moment a blind hiker summited the highest peak in Colorado and a salesman’s first visit to Tokyo.
“Blind people experience a city a little different than sighted people,” explains George Wurtzel, a woodworker and craftsman, who has been blind since he was a teenager. “It is a whole body experience … [that builds] a mental picture that is very close to what someone would get by looking around.”
As I prepared for an early-morning flight from Newark to New Orleans, I was excited to pack the JetComfy pillow, billed as the “world’s best travel pillow.” I hoped it would help me sleep through the entire flight.
JetComfy is a boxy pillow, built into a frame with an extendable pole so that you can bring the pillow closer to your head rather than the other way around. On the other end of the pole is a strap and clamp that you can use to attach the device to your seat’s arm.
The full pillow is fairly large, about half the size of a shoebox, so it’s not easy to take onto the plane if you’ve got a lot of carry-on luggage. I solved this issue by purchasing a bottle of water in an airport store and then putting the pillow into the plastic bag.
Here’s what I discovered about JetComfy:
It’s soft. I mean really soft. With two inches of memory foam, your face sinks gently into the pillow. The fleece-soft cover is also a pleasure to lay your head on.
It’s got phone chargers. Probably my favorite thing about JetComfy was the two USB chargers. I loved being able to power up my cell phone (even after I’d given up trying to sleep on the pillow). Note, however, that the chargers aren’t available with the standard JetComfy purchase; you’ll need to pony up an additional $29.99 for the Upgrade Kit, which includes two USB charging ports, an extra pillow cover and a stylus/pen/flashlight/pointer combo that fits into a slot in the base of the pillow.
It doesn’t angle well. Because it’s so soft, I couldn’t wait to rest my head on the JetComfy pillow and drift off into sleep. However, I found the ability (or lack thereof) to angle the pillow to be a problem. Though the pillow would start out angled, it would not remain so, and I’d wake up with a major crick in my neck. Because I was sitting in an aisle seat, there was nothing to lean the pillow up against to keep the angle in place. It’s possible a window seat would have solved this problem.
It’s bulky. Not only is the JetComfy a bit cumbersome to carry around and onto the plane, but it also takes a bite out of the space surrounding your seat. I quickly realized that using the pillow on the aisle-side seat arm wouldn’t work, as I’d just keep getting bumped by anyone passing by. But using it on the other arm wasn’t much better. Thankfully I was sitting next to my spouse, but he complained about the pillow bumping into him. I don’t know how you’d be able to use it next to a stranger. (Again, the window seat probably would be okay.)
My overall impression of the JetComfy pillow was mixed. I did sleep on it, and I loved how soft it was, but the pain in my neck from waking up with my head completely tilted to the side was not something I’d care to experience again.
The JetComfy pillow costs $49.99 and can be purchased at the JetComfy website (use coupon code INDY for a 10 percent discount, good through December 31, 2016) or at Amazon.com.
Want to give it a try? We’re giving away a JetComfy pillow. Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, August 31, 2016. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the JetComfy pillow. 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.
Volvo USA is currently airing a commercial that has the social media world all atwitter, wondering about the unusual seating arrangements and cryptic facial expressions of a family driving home from a wedding. Why is the forlorn dad in the backseat? Are the two other men brothers or friends or partners? That blonde driver can’t be the dad’s spouse — she’s too young! And why is she smirking?
Personally, though, I’m more curious about the stately, attractive lighthouse in the background of the extended version of the ad (the one where the overly sentimental silver fox is penning the cliched wedding toast for the daughter he’s about to marry off). Check it out:
The lighthouse, it turns out, has made appearances in a number of TV shows, films and commercials, and is a historic landmark. Fisgard Lighthouse, on the rocky southern tip of Vancouver Island, was the first lighthouse built on the west coast of Canada back in 1860.
The lighthouse was included in a 1997 TV series called “Sleepwalkers,” the 2013-14 series “Spooksville” and a Jeep Cherokee commercial. The Volvo ad was filmed at the lighthouse in early May.
If you want to visit the lighthouse, you can do so from Victoria. A causeway connects the island to the Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site. The lighthouse tower is still in operation, so it’s not open to the public. But the former lightkeeper’s home displays contains exhibits about the lighthouse’s history and stashes of games for children to play.
The lighthouse is a magnet for photographers, who are drawn to it during winter storms when the seas kick up and also at sunset, when the lighthouse stands out against a backdrop of the Olympic Mountains in neighboring Washington state. It’s a good spot to picnic and go wildlife watching, with bald eagles, great blue herons, river otters and more residing in the area.
And you can spend the night — not in the lighthouse but in summertime tented cabins that sleep six at neighboring Fort Rodd Hill. Plenty of seaside hotels and B&Bs are nearby too, in case you don’t want to go that rustic.
Yes, the Volvo ad is weird but, like it or hate it, it certainly has done its job of attracting attention for the 2016 Volvo XC90 … and for Victoria’s most famous beacon.
Want dinner delivered in a box on a weekly or monthly basis? There’s a subscription for that. Ditto for beauty products, socks, diapers, loose tea, outfits, even goodies for pregnant women tailored by due date.
Monthly subscription boxes have never been more popular. Travel buffs can get in on the mailbox fun too, with travel subscription boxes geared just for them. Here are seven we love.
Note: Most of these companies ship all over the world, though shipping fees vary.
Try the World: Each month you’ll receive a themed collection of foodstuffs from a single country, curated by a local expert. For instance, Brazilian cookbook author and teacher Leticia Schwartz selected the items in the Brazil box, focusing on foods for a quintessential Brazilian barbecue. Refreshing caipirinha, anyone?
Kitchen Table Passport: Like other kits, this one profiles a different country each month and focuses on cooking. But the kits are more than just recipes and ingredients — they invoke all of your senses. You’ll smell and taste the meal you’re preparing, but you’ll also listen to music from the destination, hold locally sourced souvenirs and see photos.
GlobeIn: In addition to receiving four or five handpicked artisan crafts from around the world — kitchen items, home decor and recycled tote bags among them — you also get to learn the back stories of the people who created the crafts. The company is committed to making a social impact by supporting the artists, crafter and creators of the products.
Little Passports: Introduce children to travel through the adventures of cartoon globetrotters and the gifts they dispatch to their young subscribers. Three kits are available: one for early explorers aged 3 to 5 years, a world edition for ages 6 to 10 and a U.S. edition for 7- to 12-year-olds. Each monthly gift contains maps, stickers, play passports, toys, activity guides and other offerings. An Egypt-themed gift box, for example, includes suitcase stickers depicting the pyramids and pretend archeological dig kit tools. Subscriptions also include access to online games.
Bocandy: If you have an adventurous sweet tooth, this is a great subscription box. You get to sample candy and other treats from Bulgaria, Japan, Germany, Mexico and other countries. There are several boxes to choose from, including one focused on Asian treats.
Eat Feed Love: This foodie website offers a “Taste Club” that delivers boxes of sample or full-sized artisanal foods and snacks from around the world. Coffee, tea, syrups, spices, oils, condiments and chocolate are all in the mix, and items are sourced from markets, family farms and small shops.
Birchbox: Birchbox was one of the pioneers of the subscription box industry, providing sample-size beauty products for women. Though not geared toward travelers per se, the five items provided in their monthly kits are often travel-sized. Items are personalized too, based on your responses to a short questionnaire.
During his first visit to Rome, Serguei Sofinski and his wife explored the city on foot after conducting extensive guidebook and app research and charting what he thought was the most interesting route. But inevitably, an attractive side street or tucked-away fountain not listed in any guidebook would draw their attention.
“When you travel, you want to use every moment to absorb and enjoy the destination you are exploring,” Sofinski says. “There were plenty of apps showing directions to major sights or suggesting predefined street tours, but none provided a scenic route that could begin from anywhere.”
So Sofinski, a Harvard Business School grad and San Francisco-based software expert, created one.
His travel app and website, Strol, provides travelers with a scenic walking route in just about any city or town on the planet, even the ones guidebooks gloss over. Punch in your desired destination, and the program gives you a clearly marked and interesting route on a simple-to-read map. Points of interest — including lesser-known monuments, buildings and other sites — are marked with a star; touch or click on it to see photos and basic factual information about the attraction.
You can also chart out a route based on the amount of time you want to walk. Let’s say you’re staying at the Four Seasons in Buenos Aires and you have 30 minutes to kill before meeting a friend for dinner. Type in your location and select a half-hour, and Strol will recommend the most scenic route.
The app uses crowdsourced information, so it’s constantly evolving and adding new attractions, large and small. Routes are also scored, based on what ordinary users (not guidebook writers) find interesting, so you get an idea how engaging the route will be. My sample half-hour stroll through Buenos Aires scored 3.20, whereas an hour-long jaunt starting in Times Square, New York, scored a 6.02, with more than 50 points of interest noted. (According to the Strol website, the most interesting destinations are scored at 7 or higher.)
Though the algorithms behind it are very complicated, Strol is a simple-to-use app that makes wandering more interesting. And it will only get better in the future as more attractions are added and more users score routes.
Getting ill or injured abroad is a risk that could strike any traveler. Purchasing travel insurance is one way to protect yourself; another is to carry an emergency medical ID card from a company called Nomad SOS.
The photo ID card lists vital information such as your blood type, allergies, medications, health issues and physical impairments — which could save your life if you’re unconscious or otherwise unable to convey this information to a first responder yourself.
Also on the card are other useful facts such as your nationality and the languages you speak, as well as two emergency contacts. Note that there is no translation on the card, so everything will appear only in English unless you submit your information in multiple languages.
Nomad SOS is particularly useful for solo travelers, people with severe allergies or medical conditions, and those who regularly travel with companions who aren’t intimately familiar with their medical history. And it’s not just for travel; you can keep it in your wallet all year round in case you encounter an emergency at home.
The card costs $39.99 for a lifetime membership, which includes the card and 24/7 access to the site’s Travel Assistance Center. It is printed on waterproof polycarbonate and, if lost or stolen, can be replaced within 48 hours for $14.99 (including worldwide shipping).
Nomad SOS is offering an exclusive discount for IndependentTraveler.com readers. Enter coupon code INDIETRAVEL when purchasing the card to get 40 percent off. You can purchase the card at the Nomad SOS website.
If you’re looking for an absorbing book with a travel vibe, the following lists provide a whopping 49 selections for your summer reading list. Most of these travel books were released in 2016, but we also included a handful of classics that are ideal for the armchair traveler.
Six of the Best New Travel Books for 2016: The Telegraph has published excerpts from six finalists for the Ondaatje Prize, which selects the top work of fiction, nonfiction or poetry that evokes “the spirit of a place.” Author Peter Pomerantsev won the prize for “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” a book about Russia that is excerpted in the article.
The Best New Books to Inspire Your Wanderlust: Travel + Leisure provides a list of 18 newly released books set in faraway places — India, the Galapagos Islands, Egypt and Haiti among them. The roundup includes fiction, nonfiction, memoirs and essays. All but one of the suggestions are currently available; the final one will be released June 28.
Summer 2016 Reads for Food and Wine Lovers: The five titles on Robin Shreeves’ list are all food- or wine-themed travel memoirs. They focus on the search for dining companions in Paris and London, the perfect pour in Napa and how food brings people together in Provence. This list will stir your wanderlust and your appetite.
The Books That Critics Say You Should Read This Summer: Quartz compared the recommended summer reading lists of six major publications and came up with a list of 15 titles that are recommended by multiple critics. They include Russell Banks’ newly released “Voyager: Travel Writings” — a collection of essays about travels to the Caribbean, Scotland, the Andes and the Himalayas — and Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing,” a novel that takes place in Ghana.
6 Books for Armchair Travelers: Though not comprising current releases, this list of classics from the blog Shelf Pleasure will transport you to Istanbul, Kenya, Paris, Russia and the Bronx.
With germs lurking everywhere from airplane tray tables to ticketing machines at train stations, hand sanitizer is an essential part of any smart traveler’s bag of tricks. After all, you’re on vacation — who’s got time to get sick?
I recently tested a new type of hand sanitizer called Touch, and it’s a little different than the usual antibacterial gel most of us pack for a trip. First off, it’s a mist rather than a gel or lotion, so it comes in a little aerosol spray can. Secondly, it doesn’t contain any alcohol, relying instead on a main ingredient called benzalkonium chloride to kill germs, bacteria, fungi and viruses. Finally, it’s formulated to stay on the hands rather than evaporating, protecting against germs for up to six hours.
Here’s what I liked and disliked about the product during our test on a recent trip to Europe.
The Good We didn’t get sick: My husband and I used the spray at least every other day during our two-week trip, and we came home healthy. I admit that one trip isn’t exactly a scientific study, and it’s impossible to know whether we would’ve gotten sick if we hadn’t used Touch (or if we’d used a different hand sanitizer instead), but it’s still a good sign.
It’s a convenient travel size: Touch comes in a 1-ounce container that is easy to fit into a purse or daypack and will get through a security checkpoint in your quart-size bag of liquids and gels.
The long-lasting protection offers security: I liked that I didn’t need to keep reapplying Touch every hour or two.
The Bad It’s not very discreet: One nice thing about using hand-sanitizing gel is that you can squeeze a dab of it into your hand without making noise. There’s no avoiding the sound of the aerosol spray when applying Touch — which made us a little a little self-conscious when we were trying to sanitize our hands in public places like a plane or a nice restaurant. (A Touch spokesperson tells us that spraying the product rather than rubbing it on helps ensure quicker and fuller coverage.)
It doesn’t necessarily leave hands feeling soft: Although Touch contains “skin-softening essential oils” (according to a product fact sheet), my husband and I didn’t love the way our hands felt immediately after spraying. It was an odd, almost powdery texture, similar to the way your hands might feel after pulling off a pair of latex gloves. Luckily, it didn’t last long.
It’s not available online: Touch is currently only available at Walgreens pharmacies. (Other sales channels are in the works.) The recommended retail price is $5.99 per 1-ounce container. Touch comes in four scents: ocean mist, tropical breeze, mint green tea aloe and unscented.
Want to give Touch a try? We’re giving away a sample of the mint green tea aloe product. Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Thursday, June 30. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the can of Touch. 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.
Maps are a classic and captivating gift for avid travelers. Stylized maps as art are popular, as are classic, National Geographic-style maps tacked to an office wall or speckled with pins indicating where you’ve traveled.
But if you’re looking for something a little different for your travel-happy dad, here are eight non-traditional maps that would make great gifts for Father’s Day in just a few weeks:
Wall decor: Here’s a gift that provides a surprise twist: Etsy vendor Bombus cuts letters out of solid wood and then lacquers onto them maps of locations of your choosing. Select maps that have personal meaning to your Dad — he probably won’t notice them at first but then will likely be touched by the personalization. Cue the watery eyes.
Smartphone case: This iPhone holder is a beauty — it’s a thin polycarbonate case with a world map cover made of hand-finished, sustainably sourced inlaid wood.
Clock: Art vendor ArtPause puts a modern spin on the world map by rendering it in watercolor and then digitally manipulating the design. The result is a sleek, colorful map that looks vibrant against the white background of this circular clock.
Corkboard: This is a cool gift for an office: A cut-out corkboard in the shape of a map. It stretches more than three feet wide.
Luggage: If Dad’s always grabbing the wrong ubiquitous black bag from the luggage carousel, this three-piece set will make baggage claim a lot easier. The hard-sided cases are adorned in brightly colored, classic maps.
Cufflinks: Sterling silver-plated cufflinks depict a rendition of the historic “New and Accurate Map of the World,” which dates back to 1626 and is thought to be one of the first ones published in English.
Beer stein: Nice to pair with a six pack of brews from different countries, this hefty stein with a green world map and gold trim holds 22 ounces.
Tie: A Father’s Day shopping list wouldn’t be complete without a tie. This one isn’t a cliche, though: It’s a tasteful ivory-colored silk tie painted with a vintage map.