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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

dining soloSolo travel can be reflective, rewarding and exhilarating, but it also presents challenges. For some, eating alone is an experience that takes getting used to. (See Terror at the Table for One.)

Luckily, the times may be changing for solo diners. At Eenmaal, a restaurant in Amsterdam, you can feel secure in asking for a table of one because that’s all that’s available; you and your fellow diners all are eating alone, together.

Hailed as the first one-person restaurant in the world, Eenmaal (which means “one time” as well as “one meal” in Dutch) describes itself as “an attractive place for temporary disconnection.” The solo eatery takes its form as a pop-up restaurant, only open during select times in select locations, and it’s far from depressing — it’s always sold out, according to its website.

Marina van Goor, the social designer and mastermind behind Eenmaal, sought to create the restaurant as a social experiment to confront the concept of loneliness in the Internet Age. The idea has not only gained widespread media attention but has led to a rash of emerging pop-up eateries for one worldwide.

Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo

The idea already exists in Japan, where space is limited but ideas for unique eateries are plenty. Take this restaurant where you can dine (alone?) with stuffed animals, for example.

As for myself, I generally forgo the fluff and face the plate without any companionship — teddy bear included — although I admit the urge to check my phone might reach an uncomfortable level. The one time I decided to go to a local brunch spot by myself, I came equipped with a book, a notebook, a pen and plenty of ways to look busy — and I wasn’t even abroad! However, I ended up enjoying my pot of tea without needing further distraction. In a world filled with constant stimulation, I found that to be an accomplishment.

Take a Bite Out of Solo Dining

Now that solo dining is “in,” we want to know: Is it still awkward? Have you dined independently, or would you try it? Share in the comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

calendar with pin on 13
The date may mean nothing to you now, but December 13 of this year is already getting a ton of hype at hotels and resorts around the world.

Why? Because it’s 12/13/14, and people love unique dates. Remember November 11, 2011 (11/11/11)? And get ready for March 14 (3/14/15, also known as the first five digits of the numeral pi). In fact, this week is being called Palindrome Week as all of the dates (4/12/14 – 4/19/14) read the same forward and backward.

With only 365 days in a year, it’s hard to avoid the cliche holiday proposals, stereotypical wedding dates and other event planning faux pas that make your special day overlap with that of countless others.
That’s why, according to CNBC, popular destinations such as Las Vegas are gearing up special hotel and vacation packages for this milestone — the last sequential calendar date this century. (The next won’t be until 01/02/2103.) Luckily for marrying couples and party throwers, 12/13/14 falls on a Saturday.

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

According to the CNBC article, many of Las Vegas’ renowned chapels are already fully booked, with some accommodating couples who wish to exchange vows at exactly 12:13:14 on the clock. Some resorts and spas are offering full and exclusive rentals of their entire property on December 13, with price tags upwards of $115,000.

Other hotels and casinos are getting creative with pricing; MGM Grand is offering a package from $1,400 with a commemorative certificate to mark the calendar occasion, while Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa in Austin, Texas, is offering a special rate of $1,213.14 for its luxury Crenshaw Suite to any couple who books their 12/13/14 wedding at the property. To top it off, the married-couple-to-be will also receive complimentary weekend stays for their 12th, 13th and 14th wedding anniversaries — it’s the date that keeps on giving!

On the flip side, many share the same idea of tying the knot or making a statement on an iconic date, so it may not be so unique after all. According to a David’s Bridal survey, around 3,000 U.S. couples were set to marry last year on 11/12/13, a Tuesday, and even more six years earlier on 07/07/07 (a Saturday).

Have you ever used an iconic date for a wedding, a retirement or just an excuse to get away? Let us know in the comments!

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Calling all hikers and international travelers! If you often find yourself in places where you don’t have easy access to safe drinking water — such as developing countries or remote hiking trails — you may be interested in a new product called the GRAYL.

This attractive, stainless steel water filtration cup works almost like a French press. You fill up an outer mug with water, then push a slightly narrower cup (equipped with a filter) into the outer mug, which forces the liquid through the filter and removes bacteria and other impurities that can make the water unsafe to drink. Check out the video below for a demonstration.



The GRAYL, which sells for $69.95, comes with a filter that removes 99.99 percent of bacteria and 99.94 percent of protozoan cysts, as well as metals and chemicals such as chlorine, BPA and lead. The filter is good for about 300 uses and can be replaced for $19.95 (or $49.95 for three).

While the normal filter is sufficient for travel within the United States or to most other developed countries, international travelers or backcountry hikers will probably want to upgrade to the Purifier, which costs $39.95. Beyond everything the standard filter removes, the Purifier takes care of 99.999 percent of viruses, bacteria and protozoa.

If there’s one downside to the GRAYL (aside from the cost), it’s the weight. It comes in at 19.6 ounces before you even fill it with water, making it a heavy addition to your daypack — but it sure beats carrying multiple disposable water bottles.

Drinking Water Safety
Traveling in a Developing Country: 11 Dos and Don’ts

Want to try it for yourself? We’re giving away a GRAYL, including both the regular filter and the Purifier, to one lucky winner. To enter, leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on April 27, 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.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

cell phone smartphone train womanIt may not have been as historically significant as Neil Armstrong transmitting the message “One small step for man,” but last Friday, when I texted my husband “Just landed” from the runway at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam for free, it felt like the dawn of a new era.

Since then I’ve been channeling my inner Millennial, texting and uploading photos to Facebook several times a day. That’s just how you roll when you’ve got unlimited global text messaging in more than 100 countries, plus unlimited (albeit slowed-down) Internet as part of your standard cell phone plan.

The plan I’m referring to is T-Mobile’s Simple Choice option, which debuted last November. It comes with free mobile data, free text messaging and low-cost voice calls in about 115 countries. Knowing I was going to be traveling to Europe soon, I switched from my previous T-Mobile plan to this one about a month ago. The Simple Choice Plan starts at $50 a month.

While I’ve always taken advantage of free Wi-Fi hotspots while traveling, I was thrilled at the idea of being able to stay connected all the time at no extra cost. I’ve never been the kind of person who thrives on being disconnected!

9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English

In terms of text messaging, the deal is just as advertised. I’ve been texting my husband, parents, friends and coworkers, holding multi-text conversations and sending photos since the moment I landed. The Internet, on the other hand, has been spottier. In general the Internet is available at 3G speeds, which isn’t bad, but when you’re used to 4G LTE, it sometimes feels like it’s crawling. And I’ve found myself in more than one blind spot. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to upload photos to Facebook multiple times, check railway schedules when I needed to and keep up to date with Yahoo! News. For those who insist on higher speeds, T-Mobile does offer for-fee upgrade packages.

The Simple Choice Plan also provides low-cost calling options. Here in the Netherlands, for instance, it will cost me 20 cents a minute to call home, which isn’t half bad. But even better, by hooking up to any Wi-Fi I can find (free, of course!) and then turning on my Wi-Fi calling option, I can call home without spending a dime.

11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling

I’ve traveled all over the world throughout my adult life, and I’ve always hated the feeling of separation from the people I love. For the first time, I’ve been reaching out while traveling as casually as I do when I’m at home. If it was a small world before, free texting and Internet and low-cost voice calling have shrunk it even further. If that’s not one giant leap for mankind, I don’t know what is.

–written by Dori Saltzman