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If you’re looking for a vacation that goes beyond lying on a beach or seeing an area’s most famous sights, a trip with a new cruise line dedicated to voluntourism might be right for you.

Fathom, owned by Carnival Corporation, is dedicated to “impact travel” — with activities designed to connect travelers with local communities where they can make a difference. For example, you might spend a day teaching English, crafting clay water filters or working in a women’s chocolate cooperative. The Fathom team works with established local NGOs to identify areas of need and figure out how travelers can contribute in a way that will build projects that eventually are self-sustaining.

rolling paper at repapel dominican republic

I recently had the chance to try out some of these activities on a trip to the Dominican Republic hosted by Fathom. My first stop was RePapel, where about a dozen women work together to produce recycled paper that they then turn into business cards, postcards and other sellable products. Recycling is not yet common in the Dominican Republic, so in addition to providing stable jobs for local women, RePapel is part of a broader initiative to raise awareness of environmental issues. Fathom volunteers help in several stages of the recycling process, including tearing the source paper into strips (white paper must be separated from paper with any type of ink on it), mixing the pulp with water and rolling new sheets flat.

Another day I helped distribute clay water filters to families in a rural village that does not currently have reliable and safe drinking water. My last activity of the trip was teaching basic English phrases (“Hello. How are you? I’m good!”) to adults. Each excursion gave us a chance to interact with the local people, though those of us who spoke at least conversational Spanish had more meaningful exchanges. (Interpreters are always available, but they can’t attend to the entire group at all times.)

I discovered that it’s essential to be realistic about your motives for taking a voluntourism trip and the individual impact you are likely to have. No single traveler will be able to swoop in and make a massive difference in a local community in just a few days, and you might feel that no sooner have you learned a new skill than it’s time to leave. Also, not every moment of each Fathom activity is dedicated to direct impact; parts of the excursions are designed for learning and cultural exchange rather than strict volunteer work.

clay filters dominican republic fathom

My limited individual impact felt disappointing at times, but it’s useful to think of your personal experience as a small part of a bigger picture. Sure, maybe I only helped produce a few dozen sheets of paper during my time at RePapel, but Fathom’s initial investment in the project (and ongoing labor support in the form of travelers like me) allowed the workshop to get off the ground in the first place — and will hopefully enable it to develop to a point where it won’t need Fathom at all anymore.

Fathom’s ship, Adonia, carries 704 passengers and will debut April 10 with three weeklong sailings from Miami to the Dominican Republic, followed by a cruise from Miami to Cuba on May 1. The ship will then alternate between the two countries from week to week.

In the Dominican Republic, you can do as much or as little volunteer work as you want — so you could combine a morning harvesting coffee beans with an afternoon relaxing on the ship or going ziplining.

Because of the governmental restrictions on what Americans can do when they visit Cuba, Fathom’s itinerary there will be more regimented and have a greater focus on learning and cultural exchange than on volunteering.

Fathom cruises to the Dominican Republic start at $974 per person, while Cuba itineraries start at $1,800.

Would you consider a Fathom cruise?

20 Ways to Blend In with the Locals
9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English
Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How

— written by Sarah Schlichter

photographer gardenPhotos are the best souvenir you can bring home from a trip, in my opinion. There are countless resources online to help you take better travel photos, including some excellent articles on our website. (Shameless plug for my favorites: 19 Tips for Better Travel Photos and 12 Things You Don’t Photograph — But Should.)

Here are five new photography resources online:

Beyond the Selfie Stick: A New Angle on Travel Photography: If you’re tired of taking selfies, you can now hire a professional photographer to accompany you on vacation and take magazine-like photos of you. Skift reports on two such companies: Flytographer, which connects travelers with local photographers in 160 cities, and El Camino, a tour company that includes the services of a pro photographer in your vacation package. (Check out our post about Flytographer.)

How to Hashtag Your Photos on Instagram: Want to maximize the number of people who see your travel photography on Instagram? Make sure you’re using the right hashtags, advises Stephanie Rosenbloom of the New York Times. For example, if you photograph a gorgeous tree, don’t just mark your photo #tree; use #treelovers.

Wanderlust Photo of the Year Competition: Looking at professional photographers’ images can be intimidating — but seeing the winning shots from Wanderlust travel magazine’s 2016 amateur photo contest invokes pride. Among the top shooters in the wildlife, landscape, people and icon categories are a police officer, an accountant, a schoolteacher and a minster.

The Natural Photographer: This new site from photographer and nature tour guide Court Whelan of the adventure travel company Natural Habitat Adventures focuses on capturing images of animals and nature. Whelan knows the types of shots travelers like to get — close-ups of cool critters, silhouettes against sunsets, wide-angle landscapes that make your Facebook friends jealous. The site also includes basics on using camera settings, composing shots and choosing equipment.

Getting Started in Travel Photography: The website PetaPixel published this great primer last week by photographer Viktor Elizarov, who gives solid advice on starting out small and growing your skills. You don’t need to book a pricey trip to Southeast Asia to find great subjects for your first foray in travel photography, he advises. You can start in your own neighborhood.

12 Travel Photography Mistakes to Avoid
How to Back Up Photos When You Travel

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

mazar i sharif mosqueEver dreamed about taking a trip to Afghanistan? How about Pakistan, Chechnya or Somalia? For travelers with a lust for adventure and a high tolerance for risk, there’s a company that will take you to these and many other seemingly dangerous places.

Untamed Borders was founded in 2006 by Kausar Hussain and James Wilcox, two adventure guides who met in the mountains of Afghanistan. Their mission is to offer “unparalleled access to some of the world’s most interesting and inaccessible places,” according to the company’s website.

Itineraries include an annual “Melons & Grapes — Grand Afghan Tour,” a two-week trip that combines a few days in Kabul with time in remote rural areas and ancient cities; a weeklong journey called “Chechnya, Dagestan and Russia’s Deep South,” which stops in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Derbent, a fortified Persian hill town; and a 16-day exploration of the tribal states in northeastern India. More active adventures are also available, including horse trekking in Tajikistan, glacier trekking in Pakistan and even running a marathon in Afghanistan.

The group size is always small — no more than 12 people, and often fewer — both for safety reasons and to keep the trips flexible. The company can also arrange custom trips for journalists, climbers, skiers, photographers or independent travelers interested in certain areas.

Of course, the big question is: Just how safe are these trips? The FAQ section on the company’s website notes that certain parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan are significantly more dangerous than others, and the trips are deliberately planned in the safer areas. In an article on CNN, the company notes that months of planning go into each trip, including plenty of brainstorming for worst-case scenarios.

The company relies on government warnings as well as first-hand info from local guides and contacts living in each country. On some trips, groups travel not only with guides but also with a security detail. All itineraries are subject to change if the situation on the ground becomes unstable, and guests must have travel insurance that covers them in the country they’re visiting. (Note: This may be difficult to find, but Untamed Borders can recommend a few specialty insurers.)

Such remote adventures don’t come cheap. Organized group trips start at 1,600 GBP per person (about $2,300 USD as of this writing), which includes accommodations, transportation, guides and breakfast. Travelers are responsible for flights, visas, insurance and other meals. If you’re traveling solo, you won’t need to pay a single supplement, but you will be expected to share a room with someone else in the group.

Travel Warnings and Advisories
18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling

Would you consider a trip with Untamed Borders?

libryia jonesWhile Libryia Jones was obtaining a master’s degree, she explored the idea of doing an overseas internship in China. After reviewing the program’s requirements, she quickly realized she didn’t qualify because she had a child. Other programs she looked into had the same rule.

“I thought, ‘Why should it be not for me just because I’m a mom?'” said Jones, an information technology project manager in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jones knew she wasn’t the only person who wanted to live abroad but felt held back for one reason or another — so she decided to do something about it through a new start-up venture called My Wander Year.

From a pool of applicants, Jones and her team will select a group of 30 to 50 people who will live overseas for a year starting this August, basing themselves in Prague, Czech Republic, for the first three months. They then will move to Chiang Mai, Thailand, for three months, followed by Cape Town, South Africa, and Panama City, Panama.

The Wander Year team will arrange for flights, lodging in a condo or small inn, a SIM card for a smartphone and group office space for participants who will work remotely. The group will have occasional meetings and excursions, but what participants do with the rest of their time is totally up to them. Some people may have the option of continuing their existing job from abroad. Others may take classes or simply enjoy living in a different city.

The initial application requirements are basic: You must be 21 years or older, have been to another country at least once in your life and speak English. And yes, participants may have kids (though the children must be over the age of 8 to apply). There are a few essay questions and an interview involved, and selected participants will undergo a background check.

“We are looking for people who can articulate a real desire to grow through this experience and who intend to contribute to this community,” Jones said in an interview. “We want to invite cool people who we would love to spend a year with.”

The cost to participate for the year is $2,000 per month, with an initial fee of $3,000. A spouse or child can be added on for an additional cost.

Jones preferred not to reveal how many applications she has received thus far, only saying that they’ve gotten “well over the number of slots available.” Applications are still being accepted on the My Wander Year website. The application fee is $25.

Living Like a Local: Interviews with Expats
10 Things You Should Never Wear When Traveling Abroad

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

visually impaired woman and companionWhat does travel look like without sightseeing? Fortunately for blind or visually impaired travelers, there’s a tour company out there to help them — and sighted travelers — find out.

Traveleyes, founded in 2004 by a blind man who loves to travel, offers small-group trips to a wide array of destinations around the world, including Australia, Morocco, Italy, Bulgaria and Peru. What makes the company special is that the trips pair blind travelers with sighted companions who serve as guides, describing the scenes in front of them and assisting them with navigation through restaurants and shops. In exchange, sighted travelers save up to 50 percent off the cost of the trip and get the satisfaction of helping their new friends discover the world.

To make the experience as rich as possible for everyone, itineraries emphasize multisensory activities such as learning the tango in Argentina, riding a camel in Morocco and tasting wine in Rome. This isn’t just for the benefit of blind travelers. On the Traveleyes website, the company notes that this is a benefit for sighted travelers as well: “Seeing is only part of the experience. As a sighted traveller, you’ll be guided on how to explore the world through all of your other senses. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ve been missing out on.”

No experience is necessary for sighted travelers — the company provides pre-trip information as well as training on the first day to help you learn how to guide. Blind and sighted travelers will be partnered with different companions each day throughout the trip so everyone can get to know each other.

Rates for sighted travelers start at just $283 per person, while rates for blind travelers start at $552 per person. Rates do not include flights or transfers unless you’re traveling from the U.K.

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

Would you try a trip with Traveleyes?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

airplaneLayaway programs seem like such a retro way to pay for something — I remember going with my mom to pick out new bedroom furniture at a discount department store in the 80s, then going back a few months later to pick them up.

Layaway all but disappeared as a shopping option in the early 1990s, then started making a small resurgence during our most recent economic downturn. Today, layaway programs are available from select travel companies: Sears Vacations, Disney and Gate 1 Travel all offer pay-in-pieces programs to help you budget for a vacation.

The latest layaway venture for travelers? A startup called Airfordable that allows you to pay for airplane tickets on an installment plan.

It works like this: You send a screenshot of a flight you want to book to Airfordable, along with a nonrefundable deposit of a third of the fare, and the company purchases the ticket for you. The team at Airfordable then sets you up with a payment plan. As long as you submit all your payments in full before your flight date, you’re good to fly.

“Airfordable’s layaway plans for air travel [reiterate] that memories are priceless and global enrichment is key in becoming a well-rounded person,” company founder Ama Marfo wrote on the Airfordable blog. Marfo shared the story of how she, as a college student, couldn’t travel home to Ghana during the holidays because she couldn’t afford the air ticket costs all at once. That’s what motivated her to start this venture.

7 Mistakes to Avoid When Booking a Flight

Sounds like a nice option for those on a tight budget or those with high-interest credit cards who can’t pay off the cost of a ticket right away. But there are a few catches: Airfordable charges a 20 percent fee on top of the ticket price, and your desired flight cannot cost more than $2,000.

Would you try Airfordable?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

If you’re looking for a lightweight carry-on that you could also bring on a hike or take to the gym, consider the new High Sierra 22″ Duffel Backpack. As the name suggests, you can wear it on your back or carry it over your shoulder, making it a versatile option for various types of trips. The bag retails for $89.99.

We took the bag on a couple of quick holiday trips to test out its features — and here’s what we found.

high sierra 22 inch duffel backpack

The Good
It’s got plenty of compartments: Two side-loading compartments are ideal for stowing shoes separately from clothes, and you can tuck your phone or glasses case into the fleece-lined front pocket. An internal mesh pocket can hold dirty laundry. One caveat: It can be awkward to pack around items in the side compartments, which jut into the main section of the bag.

You can carry it multiple ways: You can grab the bag via sturdy handles on either side, or use the two straps on top to wear it as a backpack. You can also Velcro the top straps together to put the bag over your shoulder.

It’s lightweight and easy to stow: The bag weighs less than two pounds and, because it doesn’t have wheels or a rigid internal structure, is easy to stuff into the overhead compartment of a plane.

It’s water-resistant: When we poured water on the outside of the bag, the liquid immediately beaded up and ran off the side. The bag isn’t fully waterproof, so if you’re in a downpour it’ll eventually soak through, but your stuff should be protected well enough in light rain.

high sierra 22 inch duffel backpack

The Bad
It could use a longer shoulder strap: The company suggests that you can combine the grab handles into a single cross-body shoulder strap, but they’re not quite long enough to make this comfortable, especially for taller and/or larger travelers. A longer clip-on shoulder strap would have been a nice touch.

It doesn’t have wheels: If you’ve stuffed the bag full, it could get heavy during long treks between airport terminals. (Note that High Sierra offers a number of wheeled duffel bags and backpacks if you’re seeking those alternatives.)

It might be too big to carry on: The bag measures 22 x 14 x 12 inches, which exceeds some airlines’ carry-on restrictions. (American Airlines, for instance, limits carry-ons to a total of 45 inches, or 22 x 14 x 9.) That said, because the bag is so soft and flexible, you could easily squeeze it into the airline’s sizer if it’s not completely full.

There’s only one color: The bag is a new product and so far is only available in black with bright yellow-green trim.

Want to give this bag a try? We’re giving away our gently used black High Sierra 22″ Duffel Backpack! Just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, January 25, 2016. We’ll pick one winner 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 Susan David. Congratulations!

We received a free sample of this bag from High Sierra for the purpose of reviewing it and giving it away to a reader. All products are accepted with the understanding that we will review them in a way that honestly reflects our experience — good, bad or indifferent.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

travel top 10I’m a sucker for a good top 10 list. I’ll read any that come across my Facebook and Twitter feeds. They’re nice and neat, a good round number, easily skimmable if the topic doesn’t thrill me.

Throughout the year, I’ve collected the best top 10 lists in travel. Most are useful and worth bookmarking; others rank high on the “fascinating but useless trivia” scale.

10 Places You Have to See to Believe: The gorgeous photography withstanding, it is hard to image that some of these spots actually exist on Earth. This Conde Nast Traveler slideshow in and of itself is a bucket list.

10 Longest Flights in the World: It never ceases to amaze me that a giant hunk of metal called an airplane can get off the ground, let alone stay up there for hours at a time. Currently, the longest flight in the world is more than 17 hours long; this article from Road Warrior Voices tells you where it goes.

Top 10 Train Station Restaurants in Europe: I’ve always found train travel to be so civilized and dignified. My next trip to Europe will be even more so when I dine at one of these spots.

10 Most Ethical Destinations in the World: Each December, a California-based nonprofit called Ethical Traveler releases a list of the countries that do the most to promote human rights, conserve their environments and support social welfare. Palau, Uruguay and Lithuania are among those that made the list in 2015.

Top 10 Film- and TV-Themed Bars and Restaurants: There’s a “Breaking Bad”-themed coffee shop in Istanbul — who knew? (I’d keep very close tabs on what they put into your coffee if I were you.)

Top 10 Travel Apps for 2015: This Business Review Europe article introduced me to a free app that monitors the ultraviolet index in your current location and reminds you when to reapply sunscreen. This was helpful during a beach vacation and a high-altitude trip to the Rocky Mountains, when I normally wouldn’t think too much about sun protection.

10 Luxury Journeys to Experience in 2016: CNN interviews travel specialists about their picks for stylish destinations to see next year. Central Asia, a little-known spot in Japan and Colombia made the intriguing list.

Top 10 Bike-Friendly Wine Routes: From the Wachau Valley in Austria to the northernmost tip of New Zealand’s South Island, these are the most picturesque places to combine an affinity for cycling with a love of wine tasting.

Alton Brown’s Favorite Restaurants from a Cross-Country Trip: The Food Network star is a humble diner. He picked an old-school soda fountain in Philadelphia, a Boise drive-in and a tamale joint in Tucson as some of the favorite places he ate this year during a lecture tour.

10 Totally Madcap Micronations: Every year you hear of some guy declaring his independence and starting his own country. World Travel Guide tells the stories of 10 so-called “micronations,” including one with a giant, goofy smiley face on its flag.

Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Winter?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

stocking beach holiday christmasRaise your hand if you’ve scrambled at the last minute to fill a Christmas stocking. We’re all usually focused on bigger gifts, leaving stockings to get stuffed from the mishmash of small, nominally priced items in the checkout aisle of a big-box retailer.

This Christmas, I’ll be filling stockings with as much care as I hang them. Here are indulgent and practical items under $20 that your travel-happy loved ones will appreciate (listed in order from least to most expensive):

Mini-funnels: How many times have you tried to fill those travel-sized bottles, only to end up with shampoo oozing down the side? These little funnels prevent gooey messes. Price: $1.29 for three

Bottle-top humidifier: This is ideal for frequent hotel guests who find their rooms too dry. You simply screw the device onto a bottle of water and plug in using the included USB cord. Price: $5.61

Soft-sided bottle: Airports’ filtered water fountains and bottle refill stations are handy, but hard-sided plastic or aluminum water bottles don’t often fit well in the seatback pocket on an airplane. A soft-sided, pouch-like water bottle is a great solution. This one holds 34 ounces. Price: from $6.93

Waterproof labels for toiletries: I’ve used masking tape and Sharpies to make labels for my toiletries for years, but they look low-brow and don’t last very long. These vinyl, waterproof, reusable labels from the Etsy shop ElvaandJune are much prettier, with custom shapes and printed patterns. Price: $8.91

RFID-blocking passport wallet: Savvy hackers employ wireless devices to steal your identity by reading the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) info on your credit card and passport. Thwart their attempts by using a wallet that cannot be penetrated by wireless signals. This wallet stows cash, credit cards and a passport. Price: $9.99

Lavender chamomile pillow mist: I use linen sprays like these to freshen up stale-smelling sheets, spritz worn clothing and help immortalize the memory of a trip, as I wrote about in September. This particular scent isn’t overpowering and could appeal to men and women. Price: $10

Luxury-brand toiletries: Most of us either refill bottles with the shampoo and lotion brands we have at home or buy whatever’s cheapest at the local pharmacy. Why not indulge your loved one with a luxury brand, such as Bvlgari or Kiehl’s? Price: from $10

Portable battery charger: Before you purchase a portable battery charger as a gift, make sure you know what brand of smartphone your loved one owns. This sleek, eight-ounce model works on iPhones, Androids, BlackBerries and other devices. Price: $11.45

Sleep mask: Not only does this mask do superb work blocking out light, but it also contours around your eyes — you can actually still blink when it’s on — and it doesn’t slip down your nose. Comes with free earplugs. Price: $12.80

Gadget organizer: This is the perfect companion for a long-haul flight: a nylon pouch with tons of tight elastic loops, pockets and pouches to keep all your little items organized. You’ll never have to root around on the floor for your lost pen or lip balm again. Price: $15.19

Neck rest: Unlike a standard neck pillow, the Releaf Neck Rest prevents you from becoming a sound-asleep bobblehead, because it supports all of your neck, not just the back and sides. Price: $19.99

For more ideas, check out 10 Unexpected Holiday Travel Gifts.

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

There’s a clever new bag in town for travelers who want to stay organized on their next trip. It’s called Oregami, and it involves an innovative system of interior compartments that are part shelf, part packing cube. The three zipped-together compartments fold neatly into and out of the suitcase, and can be separated if you want to stow them in drawers or keep them in different parts of a hotel room. Check out the video below to see the design in action:

The Oregami Touring 100 suitcase measures 30 inches high, 15 inches wide and 12 inches deep, and retails for $399.97 on the Oregami website. It’s currently only available in black, but a “fossil”-colored (light brown) model is coming soon, with a carry-on size to follow.

Sarah Schlichter, senior editor of IndependentTraveler.com, and Lissa Poirot, editor-in-chief of sister site Family Vacation Critic, teamed up to test the bag in a variety of settings. Lissa took the suitcase on a cruise with her son, while Sarah and her fiance shared the bag over a weekend car trip. Here’s what they loved — and what they weren’t so fond of:

The Good
It’s an organized person’s dream: What better tool to provide a Type A, organized personality than a bag with different compartments, each with zippered covers? If you love packing cubes, you’ll appreciate this bag.

It’s easy to unpack: Lissa’s favorite thing about the suitcase was being able to unzip each tray and slip them into the drawers on her cruise ship. She had packed her son’s clothes in one tray, her own in another and bathroom items in the third, so everything had a place.

It’s customizable: If you only need one or two of the trays, it’s easy to unzip them from each other and leave behind the ones you don’t need.

It’s made of high-quality materials: The bag feels sturdy, and we liked that the wheels are a standard size for in-line skates, making them easy to replace if necessary.

oregami suitcase

The Bad
It’s heavy: The bag weighs 14 pounds when it’s empty — more than a quarter of your weight allowance for checked bags on most airlines. If you tend to be a heavy packer, you might struggle to avoid overweight fees.

It’s not the most efficient use of space: Travelers who are more interested in maximizing every square inch of a suitcase than in staying organized will find it frustrating to try to work everything into or around bulky rectangular compartments. (This is the same reason ultra-light traveler Sarah is not a fan of packing cubes.)

It’s not a grab-and-go bag: If you need to access an item that you didn’t put in the top tray, you’ll have to lay out the suitcase, then unzip and undo the compartments until you reach the one where your item is stored. (With an ordinary suitcase, it’s easier to simply unzip and root around.)

It’s not easy to maneuver in crowded spaces: The suitcase rolls smoothly, but its short handle keeps the bag very close, making it difficult to turn quickly when moving through crowded airports. It doesn’t pivot or turn and is best-suited for easy, direct walks.

Want to give this bag a try? We’re giving away our gently used black Oregami Touring 100 suitcase! Just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, December 21, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the suitcase. This giveaway is open only to residents of the United States. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner of the suitcase is Mary Fortin. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter and Lissa Poirot