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pivotal soft case gear bagOne of the biggest innovations in luggage over the past several years has been the development of spinner wheels — but now a company has come up with a spinner handle.

The Pivotal Soft Case Gear Bag has a sturdy grip that doesn’t extend and retract the way most suitcase handles do; instead, it rotates 360 degrees so you can hang onto it at any angle that’s comfortable for your hand and wrist. (The idea is based on Perfect Pushup exercise grips.) To make up for the non-telescoping handle, the suitcase is taller and thinner than most: 36 inches high, 14 inches wide and 12 inches deep.

I liked the idea of the pivoting handle, and I wasn’t alone — the bag won the Product Innovation Award at last year’s International Travel Goods Show. In practice, though, it wasn’t such a hit. When I filled up the suitcase and began walking around with it, the shortness of the handle meant the top of the bag banged into the back of my thigh with each step. I could avoid it by holding my arm out to the side, but the position felt unnatural and made the bag seem heavier.

To make sure it wasn’t just me, I took the bag for a spin around the office and let a few colleagues try it out. It turns out that your height (or perhaps your wingspan?) may determine how comfortable this suitcase is to walk with. The tallest person in our office — at 6’7″ — called the bag “the most comfortable suitcase I’ve ever used.” The other folks who were able to pull the bag smoothly were 6’0″ and 6’1″, respectively. But my less lanky colleagues, ranging from 5’0″ to 5’10”, ran into the same problem I did, with the bag hitting their legs as they walked. It seems that shorter arms and the shorter pivoting handle make for a bad combination.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

That issue aside, the bag has plenty of perks. There are three different external pockets, two on the sides and one on the front, where you can store items for quick access. Inside are even more options for compartmentalization, with two dividers that you can use to separate, say, shoes from sweaters and books from clothing. There are also three different sizes of flat zipper compartments.

The bag can be collapsed for easy storage, and while the wheels don’t spin, they are large and look durable enough to handle cobblestones or rougher terrain. The weight of the bag is reasonable at 10.7 pounds, and the length of the bag, as well as the duffel straps, mean it can be used as a sports gear bag between trips.

pivotal soft case gear bag handleOne possible concern: Most U.S. airlines limit checked baggage to a total of 62 inches (height + width + depth), and the bag fits just fine by that measure. But a few airline websites we checked, including those of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, specified a maximum height of 35.5 inches, which this bag would ever-so-slightly exceed.

The suitcase sells for $249.95 at PivotalGear.com and comes in six different colors.

Want to try it out for yourself? We’re giving away our (gently used) suitcase! Just leave us a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on March 12, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the Pivotal Soft Case Gear Bag. 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 is Honey Bolas. Stay tuned for more chances to win!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Glastonbury TorWe caught wind of Sacred Introvert when a travel deal came through our inbox describing a tour experience that was specifically designed for the introverted traveler. Led by a self-proclaimed introvert, founder Lisa Avebury, the vacation experience is described as “no rushing … no tour guide barking over your thoughts.” Because introverts are often preoccupied with their own thoughts and feelings, sightseeing with Sacred Introvert is designed so there is both group interaction and plenty of downtime for these personality types to recharge and restore.

An article on CNET about Avebury and her travel venture explains that she found the motivation to start her own tour company after viewing a TED talk by Susan Cain on introversion. “It was like my whole world changed in a matter of a few days. I no longer felt like I had a social dysfunction,” Avebury said.

Tips for Introverted Travelers

The retreat, which kicks off with its first departure March 16, is a bit pricey at $3,795 per person (not including airfare). However, it includes 10 days of specially curated sightseeing in England’s Kingdom of Wessex region, with some tours during the more quiet after-hours at some locations. Also, each traveler gets his or her own room without paying a single supplement fee, and accommodations for the tour are held at Glastonbury Abbey, a former monastery. Currently, this is the only itinerary listed — one that is near and dear to Avebury’s heart for its “mystical significance” and place in legend and lore.

“I think it’s a misconception that introverts don’t want to meet new people (or new introverts rather!),” Avebury told CNET. “We just want to be understood and accepted for who we are.”

Would you be interested in taking a vacation designed for introverts?

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

southwest luv seat duffel bagSouthwest Airlines, long known for its inexpensive fares, unassigned seating, free checked bags and singing flight attendants, is now jumping into the world of fashion. Partnering with an Oregon-based company, the airline has turned scrap leather from its airplane seats into high-end handbags.

According to Forbes, Southwest was left with 43 acres of used leather after replacing seats on some of its aircraft with lighter ones to reduce fuel costs. It took most of the material to Looptworks, a company that uses industrial scraps to create unique pieces that reduce waste and aim to help the environment, where it will be made into vintage-inspired bags. (In another admirable move, Southwest also sent some of the leather abroad to SOS Kenya, which benefits orphaned children, and Massai Treads, which makes shoes for people in need.)

Looptworks is offering three bag designs — backpack, duffel and tote — which can be preordered as part of what has been dubbed “Project LUV Seat.” The company claims that each bag produced saves 4,000 gallons of water and reduces CO2 emissions by 72 percent (when compared with what would be required to use brand-new leather for the same bags).

As if this idea couldn’t get any more awesome, Looptworks employed disabled adults to deconstruct and clean the leather.

Part-Time Voluntourism: How to Give Back During a Trip

The irony, though, is that the bags are retailing for anywhere from $150 to $250 each — more than the cost of some of Southwest’s roundtrip flights.

Would you purchase one of these bags? Leave your comments below.

–written by Ashley Kosciolek

It’s an American epidemic: unused vacation days. Every year, surveys and studies are released with depressing statistics about how little vacation time Americans receive as compared with other westernized nations, and to make it worse, we don’t even take advantage of that time.

Skift released its own survey results this month, showing that 42 percent of Americans didn’t take any vacation days in 2014 — not a single one.

The Costa Rica Tourism Board, citing Expedia’s 2013 Vacation Deprivation Study, saw that 59 percent of Americans feel vacation deprived, and felt that it was a call to action. Calling its campaign Save the Americans, Costa Rica sympathizes with the plight of the overworked American, and rallies its most exotic inhabitants to sway you into vacation submission with a song.

12 Best Costa Rica Experiences

We dare you to watch these cute creatures’ original rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and not consider booking some time away immediately afterward.



Do you take all of your vacation time? Why or why not?

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

gomadic sunvolt solar chargerDo you know someone who’s always on the road or in the air? You could gift that person with the standard inflatable pillow, ear plugs or luggage, but why not surprise him or her with the true comforts and conveniences of home instead? These items are practical and perfect for use on long international trips, from the plane to the hotel and everywhere in between.

KnowRoaming
This is the answer to every international traveler’s biggest problem: roaming charges. KnowRoaming is a prepaid data sticker that attaches to your phone (in a one-time application) and automatically switches to a local provider upon arrival in a new country. You can pay as you go (rates vary by country) and easily manage usage in the app so there aren’t any surprises; for heavy users, unlimited plans are also available for $7.99 per day. A bonus: Your actual phone number shows up when making calls.

Note: Before you buy this for a friend or family member, make sure you know what type of phone he or she has. KnowRoaming doesn’t operate on Blackberries or CDMA phones. Also, phones must be unlocked prior to a trip — this means network restrictions need to be removed so the phone can operate with a different SIM card. Check KnowRoaming.com for restrictions and guidelines by carrier.

Approximate Cost: $30

Gomadic SunVolt
You’ve heard of multi-device chargers that don’t require outlets (if they’ve already been charged by one, of course), but Gomadic SunVolt doesn’t require outlets at any point. Why? It’s powered by solar energy. Up to two devices can charge at a time, and additional lithium polymer batteries can be purchased to store excess energy for nighttime charges.

Approximate Cost: $100

Christmas Markets: Europe and Beyond

Olloclip 4-in-1 Lens System
Maybe your giftee doesn’t want to lug a big camera and multiple lenses around during a three-week tour of Europe. Instead, consider the gift of an Olloclip 4-in1 Lens System (for iPhones). It offers four views: fish-eye, wide-angle and two macro options. It easily clips on to iPhones and comes with two lens caps and a carrying case.

Approximate Cost: $70

Kikkerland Music Branch 3-Way Headphone Splitter
There’s no need to share a set of headphones with this nifty, inexpensive gadget, ideal for traveling duos or trios. This earphone splitter offers three inputs so two or three people can watch a movie or listen to music together on a laptop (rather than squint at those small airplane screens). It’s also useful for couples with napping youngsters in tow.

Approximate Cost: $10

Satechi USB Portable Humidifier v.1
The Satechi USB Portable Humidifier connects to a water bottle and moistens dry air in hotel rooms (or even at home between trips) — perfect for rehydrating your nose and sinuses after a long-haul flight. When filled with cold water, it also acts as a mister to cool you off on hot days. Other functions include dim lighting for nighttime and aroma diffusing — just add liquid fragrances. To operate, plug into a USB port; it automatically shuts off after eight hours.

Approximate Cost: $30

Escape the Cold: 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations

— written by Amanda Geronikos

Every so often, when I’m stuck at home between trips and need a little jolt of wanderlust, I wander over to Vimeo.com and go hunting for travel videos. If I can’t be exploring a new place right now, at least I can spend a few minutes living vicariously through someone else’s footage. And there’s no better inspiration for future trips!

For example, check out this dreamy time-lapse video of the midnight sun in Iceland — I guarantee you’ll want to go.



Also shot in Europe but with an entirely different mood and focus is “Barcelona GO!”, which takes viewers on a frenetic trip around this colorful Spanish city, from narrow medieval lanes to grand cathedrals and concert halls:



This video set in India is so vivid I can practically taste the curry:



I’m ending with my favorite — a gorgeous, contemplative look at Japan in wintertime. Keep an eye out for the Jigokudani snow monkeys.



3 Time-Lapse Videos to Get You in the Mood for Traveling

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Some branding partnerships are questionable — Justin Bieber and perfume, Taco Bell and Doritos — but Pantone’s decision to create a hotel in Brussels just makes sense. Pantone, considered a leading authority on color, built its Belgian hotel in 2010 and as we read up in this post on Fast Company magazine’s website, the rooms are, well, colorful.

pantone room


The Pantone Hotel was designed by architect Olivier Hannaert and decorated by interior designer Michel Penneman. The design is minimalist, but the touches of color extend from a curated photo series for each of the 59 rooms by Belgian photographer Victor Levy to coffee cups, bicycles, even the toilet paper. Stretches of hallway may be tangerine, and here, accent blankets are always intentional.

pantone hotel


9 Amazing Upscale Hostels

toilet paper at Pantone hotel


Part of a larger concept for the company known as Pantone Universe, the hotel is just part of the color swatch experts’ takeover of all things under the rainbow. A color of the year has been selected annually since 2000, and in a partnership with Sephora, a makeup line is created to play up the shade of the year. (You only have one more month to bathe in radiant orchid, or Pantone color 18-3224, before 2015 washes it away.) Online, the number of Pantone-related products colors the spectrum — if you need to brighten your day, visit their website. We’re not sure if the concept will ever become a chain, but if you’re in Brussels and want to experiment with how color might change your mood, the Pantone Hotel has a very specific number and letter for that.

6 More Sweet Hotels in Brussels

breakfast at Pantone hotel


Inspired by Pantone’s imaginative entry into hospitality, which other brands or products would you like to see with overnight accommodations? I think an [insert your favorite brand of coffee here] hotel would allow guests to at least be caffeinated, if not well rested. Share your ideas in the comments.

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

eatsmart digital luggage scaleIf you’ve ever gotten to the check-in desk at the airport and been alarmed to discover that your suitcase was overweight, there’s an easy solution: a luggage scale.

While you can always try putting your suitcase on your bathroom scale at home, a luggage scale is an easier and more accurate way to see just how heavy your bag is. As a bonus, you can take it with you on your trip too, so before you head home, you can weigh your bag in your hotel room to figure out whether all those souvenirs you bought will push you over your airline’s weight limit.

We recently took EatSmart’s Precision Voyager Digital Luggage Scale for a spin. The scale is easy to use, with a simple on/off button and a “UNIT” button that toggles between pounds and kilograms.

To weigh your bag, you attach the scale to your suitcase handle using a sturdy strap and buckle. Then you lift the bag for a few seconds until the scale offers a digital reading. It helps that the scale’s handle is big enough for both hands; that makes it easier to lift a heavy bag for the few seconds it takes the scale to display the weight. The scale can handle up to 110 pounds (50 kilograms).

You may be tempted to pack your bag all the way up to the 50-pound limit (which is when most airline overweight fees start kicking in). However, we’d recommend leaving yourself a couple of extra pounds — not only to pack the scale itself, as EatSmart recommends, but also to allow for variation between the scale’s readings and those of the scale at the airport. When we weighed the same bag several times, we got different readings from the Precision Voyager, ranging from 10.9 – 11.2 pounds for an empty suitcase and 28.5 – 28.8 pounds for a full one. Best to leave a little room for error.

7 Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

The scale is currently selling on Amazon.com for $19.95 plus shipping. Want to win one for yourself? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, November 17, 2014. We’ll pick two people at random to win a luggage scale. 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

On your next trip, you could go out for a nice, quiet dinner — or you could eat your meal behind bars … or underwater … or in a fancy restroom! At these one-of-a-kind restaurants, it’s not just about the food. In fact, meals take the back burner while ambience and unique entertainment steal the show.

ithaa underwater restaurant maldivesIthaa, Rangali Island, Maldives
Part of Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, this all-glass restaurant is situated underwater, some 16 feet below the surface of the ocean. It features 180-degree views in a small dining room that seats about 12, who are lucky enough to watch sea creatures sailing by as they dine on modern European cuisine.

Food and Travel: The Ultimate Guide


alcatraz er tokyoAlacatraz E.R., Tokyo, Japan
Not that you ever wanted to dine behind bars … but Alcatraz E.R. offers the chance in blood- and body part-splattered jail cells (fake, of course). Guests sip cocktails out of test tubes and mannequin heads, and during meals, you might find the lights going out as “escapees” enter the prison cells.

Photos: 12 Best Japan Experiences


supperclub amsterdamSupperclub, Amsterdam, Netherlands
So maybe you don’t want to dine behind bars, but who doesn’t want to eat in bed? At Supperclub, four-course meals and cocktails are served on mattresses, housed in a dimly lit room. Guests also enjoy live, often interactive entertainment such as burlesque, vaudeville, cabaret and freak shows, along with music and art.

Photos: Best Netherlands Experiences


modern toilet taipeiModern Toilet, Taipei, Taiwan
Normally, you want to avoid a trip to the bathroom following a meal, but at this restaurant, you’ll practically eat in the restroom. Patrons sit on toilets and at tables that resemble bathroom sinks. Meanwhile, more toilets adorn the walls. Drinks are served in glasses that look like urinals, and food is delivered in miniature porcelain thrones (and chocolate ice cream is on the menu).

7 Strange Foods from Around the World

le refuge des fonduesLe Refuge des Fondues, Paris, France
This tourist spot has gained attention for the way it serves wine: in baby bottles. It’s tiny, too — so tiny, in fact, that you might have to jump over a table to access seats along the wall (diners sit together at two long tables). Graffiti is encouraged (the walls are covered with it), and delicious fondue is served.

Photos: 12 Best France Experiences


pink door seattleThe Pink Door, Seattle, U.S.A.
Hidden in an alley at Pike Place Market, the Pink Door isn’t just the name of the restaurant; it’s what you’ll need to search for to find the place (there aren’t any signs). Once inside, you’ll walk down a set of stairs — the restaurant is situated underground — to a small room lit by candles. Delicious Italian fare is served, but the real draw is the entertainment. A trapeze artist twirls and spins overhead on Sundays and Mondays, while Saturdays feature burlesque and cabaret shows.

— written by Amanda Geronikos

travelwise packing cubesIf you consider packing a vocation and allocate every square inch of your suitcase using a color-coded spreadsheet, you’re probably already familiar with packing cubes, those soft-sided little rectangles of happiness that make organizing a snap and ensure you’ll pack light.

For the uninitiated, packing cubes are essentially rectangular zip-close bags that come in various sizes. They help keep clothes from wrinkling because they reduce shifting in luggage, and they allow travelers to make the best use of limited suitcase space.

TravelWise offers a 3-Piece Packing Cube Weekender Set that includes cubes in three sizes, ostensibly for those looking to organize for shorter trip. Here’s how they stacked up on trip in which they were used in conjunction with a standard carry-on suitcase.

Size
The three sizes (11.5 inches by 6.75 inches by 3.75 inches; 13.75 by 9.75 by 3.75; and 17.5 by 12.75 by 4) make organizing simple, with smaller items like undergarments and socks fitting perfectly in the smallest cube and pants and blouses in larger two. All three cubes easily fit into a standard carry-on bag, with room for spare items like shoes.

The biggest cube seems unnecessarily large, though. Maybe I’m just a light packer, but for a weekend trip I probably could’ve left that one at home to make room for other odd-sized items.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Zippers
Confession: I have been known to overpack cubes, leading to a burst zipper or two. TravelWise’s zippers are sturdy and easy to grip, and they pull smoothly. I didn’t test them to their max, but they withstood lots of repeated opening and closing.

Material
Packing cubes are supposed to help you organize your items without bogging you down, so “lightweight” is essential to any materials. Made of nylon, TravelWise’s packing cubes are plenty light, with a mesh panel in the center of each. The mesh helps you identify what is in each cube at a glance so you aren’t stuck digging through to find things. This design also allows airflow, so I was able to pack dirty clothes in them for the return trip. The cubes require handwashing.

Handles
I often leave my clothes in the cubes, then just plop them in a drawer at the hotel when I arrive, so having a handle is a small convenience that makes grab-and-go that much easier. The handles on TravelWise’s cubes are durable, and they stand up to being hung from hangers, showerheads and hooks.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

The Bottom Line
Ultimately, there isn’t a lot of variation in packing cubes from brand to brand. Most high-quality cubes come in various sizes, are made of durable materials and have multiple color options. TravelWise’s cubes are slightly deeper than other brands I’ve used, which will accommodate more clothing without taking up significantly more space in your suitcase. They’re available through online retailers such as Amazon and retail for $39.95.

Want to win a set of gently used red packing cubes? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on October 27, 2014. We’ll pick one person at random to win the bag. 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 is Roanne Coplin, who will receive a set of gently used packing cubes. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further chances to win.

— written by Colleen McDaniel