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If you’re anything like me, you’ve started planning countless three-day weekend getaways but never ended up going anywhere. Either you grew tired of obsessing over the right place to stay or the best-priced flights, or you got too busy and forgot to book the trip.

A new travel agency concept launched this year that can remedy the problem for you. But there’s a catch: When you book a three-day getaway through Pack Up + Go, you don’t actually know where you’re going.

couple in convertible road trip sunset


That’s not entirely true: You eventually know where you’re going, if you play along the way you’re supposed to and wait until just before you hit the road to open the mystery envelope revealing your destination.

The team at Pack Up + Go will plan a three-day trip for you in the Continental United States, based on how much you have to spend and what you want to do. On the company’s website, you fill out a brief survey, noting your per-person travel budget and whether you prefer to drive or to take a bus, train or plane. You detail your preferred trip pace, mention the cities you’ve visited recently and select your interests from a checklist of nearly two dozen options.

Add your address and credit card details, and your work is done. The team will select a medium-size or large city that’s three to four hours from your departure location. The only info you’ll know in advance is the weather forecast and a few packing suggestions.

A few days before departure, a packet will arrive in the mail, telling you what time to depart. The packet includes a sealed envelope containing your destination, confirmation paperwork and a suggested itinerary. (Additional details, including a link to a personalized Google map, come via email.)

Currently only American travelers can use the service, and destinations are only in the Continental United States. The minimum cost is $400 per person (based on at least two travelers) for a road trip and $650 per person for a plane/train/bus outing, and covers transport and accommodations only. All other costs, including food and activities, are out of pocket.

If you want to use the site, plan at least a month in advance; the service has been so popular that staff are working crazy hours to keep up with demand.

12 Ways to Be More Spontaneous When You Travel
Between Trips? Take a Microadventure!

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Matt Dimmer had just relocated to Los Angeles when his father, living in Michigan, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Dimmer flew back and forth frequently, spending as much time with his dad as he could.

matt dimmer


As he made the trips, Dimmer kept thinking about others who had loved ones with cancer. He was able to afford the flights to go see his dad, but what about those who couldn’t? It pained him to think about people in that situation.

Just before his father passed away, Dimmer launched a small nonprofit organization to collect frequent flier miles from donors and to use them to book flights for cancer patients and their family members. His nonprofit, The Extra Mile, is marking its fifth anniversary this year.

IndependentTraveler.com: Tell us how The Extra Mile works.
Matt Dimmer:
The premise of The Extra Mile is pretty simple. We take donated air miles and money and give them to those who cannot afford to visit loved ones terminally ill with cancer. Currently we are cancer-specific, as that is what my dad passed away from and I wanted to stay true to the nature of my inspiration.

IT: Can you tell us about some of the people you’ve helped?
MD:
We’ve helped several people connect with terminally ill loved ones just before losing that individual. We’ve brought people over from Europe to the United States. We flew a 15-year-old with a rare form of brain cancer and his family to an event that was on his bucket list. And we brought a sister to her deceased brother’s funeral so that she could have one last moment with him.

IT: How does someone donate?
MD:
There are two ways to donate. You can donate money directly through our website, or you can donate your accrued frequent flier miles.

Donating air miles is a bit more complicated. Because of airlines’ policies, there are fees associated with giving air miles, and the fees raise on a scale depending on the number of miles you’re looking to donate.

Let’s say you wanted to give 3,500 miles. There’s likely a set fee for that ranging from $50 to $150. If the individual donating the miles is willing to pay the fee, that makes for the easiest transaction. Otherwise, depending on the fees and amount of donated dollars in our account, I’ll offer to cover the fee in exchange for the miles. This is a bit more of a process, but has happened a few times.

The cash donations are used mostly for purchasing tickets, but some funds go to paying for taxes on donated mile flights as well as minor operating costs for the organization.

airplane in blue sky


IT: How many miles have you collected in the past five years?
MD:
We’ve received hundreds of thousands of miles. They usually get spent as soon as we get them as there’s always an ongoing queue of people who have reached out.

IT: It can be difficult to secure a flight using miles. Do the airlines show more flexibility in helping your recipients?
MD:
Unfortunately, not really. The airlines stick to their rules, regardless of the reason for the miles being used. The most flexibility I tend to experience is the airline agent on the other end of the phone giving me a bit more time to pull all the necessary pieces together on that call so I can complete the flight.

I recently started a Change.org petition to encourage airlines to waive or lower the fees for transferring miles to someone else. I got frustrated one day and wanted to set something else in motion that would potentially get the airline’s attention.

IT: What plans do you in mind for the next five years of The Extra Mile?
MD:
Within the next five years I’d love to hit a major milestone, whether that’s amassing a team of volunteers, having a corporate partnership develop or making progress with at least one airline.

IT: Since The Extra Mile started, you’ve become a father yourself. How did becoming a father change your perspective on your cause?
MD:
Fatherhood is amazing. And it adds another level to the nonprofit. I can now imagine myself in my dad’s position, and all the things that I’d like to share with my sons about the time we had together. It also gives my boys something to continue, something that does good after I’m gone — a legacy started by their dad, in honor of their grandfather, that they can carry on.

Check out more travel interviews!

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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.

hotel room view


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.

11 Things Not to Do When Booking a Hotel
6 Lies Your Hotel Might Not Tell You

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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.

ho chi minh city illustration


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.

ho chi minh city illustration


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.”

Traveleyes: Helping Blind and Sighted Travelers See the World
9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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 pillow airplane sleep


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.

How to Sleep Better on Planes

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.)

jetcomfy travel pillow


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.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner of the JetComfy pillow is Jessica Chen. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further chances to win.

— written by Dori Saltzman

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.

Photos: 11 Best Canada Experiences
Vancouver City Guide

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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.

kitchen table passport france box


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.

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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.

strol app


“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.

Would you give Strol a try?

The World’s 9 Best City Walking Tours
What Not to Do in a New City

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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.

nomad sos emergency id card


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.

18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling
How to Find Health Care Abroad

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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.

woman on hammock reading a book at the beach


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.

Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Summer?
The Best Travel Book Dedication Ever

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma