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In early October, I embarked on a weeklong family vacation around the southwestern United States. This loaded itinerary promised hiking, rock climbing, swimming and a family reunion spread across five cities, three states and eight days. While I’m generally an efficient packer, I was having difficulty narrowing down my clothing options and keeping myself organized this time around.

ezpacking packing cubes


Normally, I’m skeptical of any packing cubes or aids. I’m a bare-bones traveler who has managed just fine with rolling, folding and cramming in the past. So when I was given the EzPacking Starter Set, a collection of four packing cubes in various sizes, I can’t say I expected much. If anything, I figured they’d complicate the packing process and add unnecessary bulk to my bag.

I was wrong. In fact, these little plastic cubes worked so well for me that I ordered another set shortly after this trip.

I used the large cube (which measures 16″ x 10.3″ x 4″) for casual wear, the medium (12″ x 10.3″ x 4″) for athletic clothes and running gear, the small bag (10.3″ x 6″ x 4″) for my bathing suits and intimates, and the extra-small bag (6″ x 6″ x 2.5″) for toiletries. When detouring to Page, Arizona for two days in the middle of the trip, I took the largest cube as an overnight duffel rather than lugging my full-size suitcase all over the Southwest.

Altogether these bags nestled nicely into my suitcase, maximized space and worked well with our multi-faceted and activity-intensive itinerary.

What We Liked: The EzPacking organizers are like the Mary Poppins bag of travel. These little things don’t look like much on the outside, but they can fit a lot. For instance, one of the larger bags comfortably held nine warm-weather outfits and a light jacket. (Disclaimer: I’m a petite, 5’0″ female.)

Beyond compactness, these bags are also lightweight and sturdy. They added very little extra weight to our luggage (20 ounces), and held their shape no matter how much stuff I crammed in around them. Unlike some other packing cubes, EzPacking organizers are transparent on four out of six sides, so it’s easy to see what you’ve packed where.

What We Didn’t Like: While the cubes are compact and convenient, they will take up the bulk of your bag. Because of this, I had difficulty squeezing in some last-minute souvenirs that were too delicate to fit elsewhere.

Another downside is that these cubes make it dangerously easy to overpack. I had to transfer several items from my suitcase to my carry-on just to keep my bag within the airline’s 50-pound limit.

Bottom Line: While a bit on the pricey side for a set of four (they retail for $48), the EzPacking organizers are a great asset for people with packing OCD, or travelers looking for extra organization.

EzPacking organizers can be ordered individually or purchased online in one of several bundles. They come in different colors and are TSA-approved (in fact, the smallest bag is perfect for TSA’s liquid and gel regulations). You can buy them on the EzPacking website or on Amazon.com.

Want a chance to win our gently used EzPacking Starter Set? We’re giving it away. Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, November 9, 2016. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the Starter Set. 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.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time
11 Travel Essentials That Do Double Duty on the Road

— written by Christina Janansky

Two travel startups have come up with distinctive ways for travelers to earn rewards merely by booking trips.

travel money jar


At a time when frequent flier miles and other points-earning opportunities are harder than ever to manage and use, Upside and TRVL are refreshingly innovative options for accruing bonuses for purchasing airfare and hotels.

Upside rewards you with gift cards for being flexible with your travel plans. When you book airfare and hotel rooms, which the company offers as a package, Upside will offer you gift cards to Amazon, eBay, Home Depot, Whole Foods and dozens of other stores. Willing to fly during less desirable hours, or to stay at a hotel a little farther from the city center? You’ll earn even more in gift card rewards.

I priced out a weeklong trip to Madrid, flying from New York and staying at a modest hotel near the Royal Palace. The total came to $1,440, and I would earn $314 in gift cards. If you see the gift cards as a rebate, that’s a 22 percent discount.

Upside, founded by Priceline.com founder Jay Walker, is currently taking bookings for flights from New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles, with 40 international destinations currently available. More will be added in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the premise behind the soon-to-be-operational TRVL is to allow individuals to earn commissions from hotel, air, car and activity bookings that you make for yourself or for others. Those others could include friends or family, or even strangers around the world who read about your areas of expertise and ask you to make their trip arrangements.

How much could you earn? The website provides a few ballpark examples. Planning a three-night jaunt to New York City for two people could earn you $100, whereas a two-week, multi-country European journey could net you $450.

Once it’s up and running — the company is currently collecting email addresses of potential users, to prepare for a beta testing period — the website will allow you to recommend your favorite hotels and activities. You receive ratings based on how much the travelers enjoy their trips, and presumably, the higher the rating, the more booking requests you could receive and the more commissions you could earn. As with Airbnb and Uber, you also get to rate your customers.

Both sites are suitable for use by individuals going on vacation or for companies booking business travel.

Would you try Upside or TRVL?

9 Creative Ways to Save for a Vacation
10 Travel Money Mistakes to Avoid

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

There’s a new hotel site for travelers who want to do good while exploring the world: KindTraveler.com. Launched in summer 2016, the site has partnered with hotels in the U.S., the Caribbean and Mexico to encourage travelers to donate to charity in exchange for a discounted nightly rate.

kind traveler screenshot


Plug in your travel dates, and you’ll get a list of available hotels and rates. Click on one, and you’ll see how much of a discount you can get for a donation of $10 a night to charity. For a February stay at the upscale 1 Hotel South Beach in Miami, I was offered a $95 discount per night with my donation, taking the rate from $731/night to $636/night. (If you book directly on the hotel’s website without making a donation through Kind Traveler, the lowest available rate is $640 a night — so the savings aren’t necessarily as large as they might appear.)

At the James Chicago, a $10/night donation took the price from $149 to $124 per night for my February dates. (On the hotel’s website, the lowest available rate was $130 a night.)

When you’re ready to book, you can select the hotel’s recommended charity or choose your own. The site’s causes fall into 10 categories, such as wildlife, human rights, environment, education, health and disaster relief. Charities within these categories include the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Arbor Day Foundation, among others. You can pay for your booking with a credit card or use PayPal.

The site’s offerings are limited so far, with fewer than two dozen hotels, most of which appear to cost more than $200 a night. The properties are mostly boutique hotels and have been vetted for “Kind Factors” such as eco-friendly toiletries, recycling programs and donations to their local communities.

While the site’s offerings are too limited to benefit most travelers right now, the idea is a worthy one, and we’ll be keeping an eye on the site as it expands. Check it out yourself at KindTraveler.com.

Voluntourism: Does It Really Help?
33 Ways to Sleep Better at a Hotel

— written by Sarah Schlichter

You need a vacation — but if you haven’t settled on a destination and your travel dates are flexible, it can be difficult to find the best possible deal. Enter Fareness.com, a flight search website that launched last year.

fareness screenshot


While most travel search sites ask you to put in your preferred travel dates (plus or minus up to a few days), Fareness offers larger blocks of travel dates — such as “Next 2 weeks only” or “All of December.” You can select more than one option if you want to search, say, October through January. Enter your departure airport and a trip length of anywhere from 3 to 17 days, and the site will show you fares to destinations around the world.

You can filter your destination results by region (such as Europe or U.S. cities) or theme (beach, popular, family). The results are displayed both on a map and in a Pinterest-style tile layout featuring large, beautiful photos of each destination.

We plugged in Los Angeles as our departure city and came up with some pretty eye-popping fares, including $458 roundtrip to Bangkok and $114 to Chicago, including taxes. (The site lists these as discounts of more than 60 percent over typical fares on these routes.) When you decide on a city and click on it, the site shows a calendar of when the lowest fares are available. Choose your dates and you’re taken to a screen where you can select your outbound and return flights.

The flight selection screen was a little confusing at first, but I eventually figured out that the blue bars under each itinerary represent both the length of the flight and the time of day that you’ll be traveling. You can filter results by departure time, number of stops, airline and airport. Once you choose your flights, Fareness directs you to Priceline to make your booking.

I checked a few of the prices I found on Fareness against those on Kayak for similar itineraries and dates, and discovered that in some cases the fares were the same, while in others Kayak or Fareness was cheaper by a few dollars. This leads me to an unsurprising and time-tested conclusion: You should never book a flight without checking multiple sites.

That said, Fareness is a valuable resource for travelers in the early stages of trip planning who haven’t settled on a destination and/or exact travel dates. While Kayak has a somewhat similar search feature (you type in your home airport and the season or month you want to travel), Fareness offered a more comprehensive calendar of results.

The bottom line? I’ll be adding Fareness to my own personal travel toolkit. Check it out at Fareness.com.

10 Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare
7 Mistakes to Avoid When Booking a Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter

A few years ago, we conducted a Travel Pillow Challenge, road testing four unusual accessories to help you sleep better on long-haul flights. Back then, we thought some of the pillows were pretty weird looking — remember the giant inflatable apostrophe that looked more like a beauty pageant sash than a pillow?

But, oh my, the embarrassment factor has grown so much since then. Check out these awkward-looking travel pillows for flights.

ostrich pillow


Ostrich Pillow
Nothing says chic like a giant pillow that looks like a vintage deep sea diver helmet. At least the makers of the plush Ostrich Pillow have a sense of humor and play up the ridiculousness of this $99 sweat factory in photos on their website. I’ve never seen anyone wearing this on a flight, but I’d definitely tweet a pic of him or her if I did. Buy it at OstrichPillow.com or Amazon.

little cloud nine travel pillow


Little Cloud Nine Travel Pillow
I’m not sure if this blow-up device was invented by someone looking to catch a few Zs on an airplane or by a member of the Witness Protection Program. The device is said to provide stability to your neck and prevent your head from bobbing forward. It also makes the person in the middle seat so utterly afraid to ask if they could slide by to use the restroom that they’ll hold it in for the duration of your long-haul flight. Buy it at CloudNinePillow.com or at Amazon.

hoodiepillow


The HoodiePillow
Really want to convey the “don’t talk to me” message to your seatmate? Wrap this inflatable U-shaped pillow around your neck and draw up the attached hood. For maximum passive-aggressiveness, pull the drawstring so tight that only your nose and mouth appear. Buy it at HoodiePillow.com or Amazon.

skyrest travel pillow


SkyRest Travel Pillow
It’s like propping a recycling bin on your tray table! As large as many carry-on bags, this inflatable pillow supposedly counters the natural tendency of your head to fall forward when you sleep. It also requires that you ask the person next to you to hold your drink and your iPad and your snacks. Buy it at SkyRest.com or Amazon.

How to Sleep Better on Planes
11 Things Not to Do on a Plane

Would you try any of these pillows?

–written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

“Will we have to dress up?”

That’s the question — more like a whine — that I hear from my husband every time we plan a trip. Don will suit up when he needs to, but he associates jackets with work and clients and meetings, not relaxing and traveling.

Nonetheless, many vacations include at least one time to get fancy. Think cruises, weddings, a milestone dinner, a theater performance. But finding the space to pack dress clothes and keep them looking nice can be a problem when you’re looking to save space.

skyroll spinner


Enter the SkyRoll Spinner. This spinner suitcase meets most airlines’ carry-on size limits when packed (22 x 14 x 9 inches) but has the extra feature of a garment bag that clips onto the side and wraps around it. There’s also an included toiletries satchel. The inside of the garment bag has slots for folded dress shirts and ties, and the top of the carry-on has a compartment that the company designed to store the toiletry bag, but could also be a clever place to put shoes to keep them separate from your clothes. Seems like the perfect bag for the stylish traveler on the go. Right?

Well, maybe. The SkyRoll website notes that the bag is mostly designed for women, and that the size of the garment bag — 19 by 55 inches — makes it unsuitable for men’s jackets above size 40. My husband is 6’5″. While he liked the way the garment bag snapped onto the bag, it wasn’t wide enough for his dinner jacket, so he had to bend the edges to make it fit — not exactly what you want to keep it pressed. My dresses, which are smaller, were a better fit.

We discovered that the top compartment would work for shoes if your feet aren’t too big. (My women’s size 9.5 shoes went in fine; Don’s size 12 shoes were too large.) Don appreciated the thoughtful pockets in the garment bag, as well as the ease of rolling. If he didn’t already have a dopp kit, he would have gladly used the SkyRoll version, which comes with a hook to hang over the bathroom door.

What We Liked: The bag is ideal for the average-sized person who wants a comprehensive solution for a business trip or a short weekend escape. The top compartment itself is a joy for the organizer, with a glasses pocket and slots for cards and a pen in the top. If you don’t need the compartment, you can zip it out and use the extra space for the rest of your clothes.

What We Didn’t Like: If you’re tall with broad shoulders, this isn’t the bag you’re looking for.

Bottom Line: For most travelers, the SkyRoll Spinner solves the problem of keeping a jacket or dress neat and separate from the rest of your clothes. We’d recommend it for a shorter trip — say, a wedding weekend or a quick business trip — and for a shorter person.

Choosing the Right Travel Luggage

The SkyRoll Spinner weighs 10 pounds and sells for $299.99 on the SkyRoll website. The site also offers a carry-on with rolling (rather than spinning) wheels, a garment bag and a toiletry bag. For the next month, SkyRoll is offering a special coupon code for IndependentTraveler.com readers. Use IT916 to save 15 percent on any purchase through October 21, 2016.

Want a chance to win our gently used SkyRoll Spinner? We’re giving it away. Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, October 5, 2016. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the SkyRoll Spinner. 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.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

— written by Chris Gray Faust

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