One of the pleasures of staying in a hotel is enjoying all the little luxuries that come with your room — slipping into a bathrobe or pair of slippers, trying out a new brand of body lotion. But for many frequent travelers hotel amenities leave a little to be desired, even at expensive properties.
Cecilia Freeman, a member of the IndependentTraveler.com community team, recently found herself disappointed by the in-room coffee at a Seattle hotel for which she paid $275 a night. “The coffee was Starbucks, but they stocked these generic fake sugar and creamer packets with a useless napkin and a stirry straw,” she told me. “Every time I travel and stay in any level of hotel, I always get the same lame amenity pack for the coffee. I wondered if Starbucks would be happy its coffee was accompanied by this awful generic stuff.”
It spurred her to look at other common hotel amenities with a more critical eye: “Shower caps? Who uses those? Shoeshine sponges? The list goes on … the whole amenity package for all hotels needs a redo.”
In fairness, I remember one occasion several years back when I did use a hotel shower cap — but that’s one time out of hundreds of hotel stays. Why don’t hotels cut some of these rarely used amenities and offer free Wi-Fi instead? In an informal survey a few years back, we discovered that it was the hotel amenity travelers want most.
I reached out to a couple of other well-traveled colleagues to get their perspective on hotel amenities. Brittany Chrusciel, an associate editor for IndependentTraveler.com’s sister site, Cruise Critic, wants to ban bar soap at the sink. “I don’t mind a bar in the shower, but I’d much rather have liquid soap for hand washing,” she said. “Half the time there’s no soap dish, so the bar slithers all over the sink and makes a mess. Plus, it’s a waste when you only use it for a day or two. A hand soap dispenser is so much neater and more convenient.”
My own biggest pet peeve? Hotels that only offer a single pillow on each side of a bed, with no extras in the closet. Cruise Critic senior editor Chris Gray Faust agreed: “I like having a fortress of pillows.”
There are some hotel amenities we love, including bottled water (preferably free), hypoallergenic pillows, facewash and cotton swabs. Best of all: a little note that says “Forgot something? Call the front desk” with an offer to supply things like toothbrushes, toothpaste or razors.
Thanks to my perfectionist ways, I tend to do pretty well in airports. I arrive early, wear slip-on shoes that are easy to get on and off at security, organize my carry-on items well and constantly check the departure board for changes related to my flight.
But in the same way some travelers are always on the prowl for discounted getaways, my travel obsession of late is studying new strategies to master the airport experience. Fortunately, there are others out there like me, and they’ve shared their tips to hack your way through the airport.
Here are five tips and recommendations that I’ve found particularly useful lately:
Take screengrabs of your mobile boarding pass: This great article on the New Zealand website Stuff reminded me how finicky some apps can be — and that Murphy’s law dictates they’ll give you the most problems when you’re just about to approach the security officer in line at the airport. Avoid such problems by taking a screengrab of your boarding pass and displaying that. Chances are, it’s much easier to open your phone’s photos folder than to count on an airline’s app to work exactly when you need it to.
Pack an outlet splitter in your carry-on: There’s nothing more frustrating than needing desperately to charge your phone at the airport but finding all the outlets are occupied. Insider smartly suggests packing an outlet splitter, which turns one outlet into two. Then you just ask another tethered device addict to share the outlet and you both get to charge up. Outlet splitters cost just a few dollars and are widely available.
Download airport apps: I have plenty of airline apps on my phone, along with GateGuru, but I never thought to download apps for the airports themselves. Airplane News’ 10 Common Mistakes You’re Making at the Airport reminded me to download the airport apps too. I found this especially useful on a recent trip to seek out a decent place to eat and find an alternate restroom when the one near my gate was closed for cleaning.
Pick airport security lines to the left: I should have known this because I’m left-handed, but somehow it slipped my mind: Because most people are right-handed, they tend to gravitate to the right-side security lines. So it’s likely the lines to the left will be shorter, according to our own 18 Best Airport Hacks. This tip has been around for a while, but it’s still holding fast and true.
The last minutes of summer are ticking away, with just two days left until the official start of autumn. So while the final countdown is on, I count down for you a batch of intriguing things in the world of travel that will help you decide where to go this fall (and winter), and how to get there in the smartest possible way.
10 Transport Apps to Help You Get Around
A technology reporter for the Guardian reveals his picks for the best 10 apps to help you navigate various transportation options. While the article is U.K.-centric, most of the apps are applicable to other cities around the world.
9 New Hotels Worthy of Your Instagram Account
Vogue magazine runs down nine new properties around the world that are chic enough to appear as a square image in your social media feed, including an artistic enclave on the beach in Nicaragua. Perhaps one will be on your travel list for this fall?
8 Adventurous Ski Holidays for 2016-17
Are you a skier? These are the hottest (coldest?) ski experiences in the world this coming season, according to the Guardian. Heliskiing in British Columbia late this fall, anyone?
5 Underrated European Destinations
Romania and Montenegro are among a handful of spots in Europe that more travelers should make a priority to see, says a woman who quit her New York City job to travel the world. This autumn’s shoulder season could be the ideal time to check some out.
4 Affordable Ways to Travel Long Term
Huffington Post travel blogger Shannon Ullman suggests that volunteering abroad not only is personally rewarding, but also allows you to stay in a place for a longer period of time without spending a lot of money. She offers three other ways you can afford to travel longer.
2 People Traveling for a Year on $20,000
Writer Chris Guillebeau profiles an Arizona couple who ditched their stay-in-one-place lifestyle and hit the road, allowing housesitting opportunities to determine their destinations. Hard to believe they financed nearly the whole year merely by selling their car!
1 B&B Shaped Like a Beagle
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you suddenly discover a bed and breakfast built in the shape of a floppy-eared dog. The blog My Modern Met features the Dog Bark Park Inn in Cottonwood, Idaho, a two-bedroom cottage shaped like a beagle. Go fetch?
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.
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.
It’s summer. The majority of European workers are likely on vacation while American workers are toiling away at the office, warehouse or other workplace. This isn’t necessarily because Europeans get more time off on average than their American counterparts (although they do). Poll after poll shows that around half of all Americans don’t use all of their allotted vacation time.
Kanisa Baker has had enough. Americans must take vacation time, she says, for their sanity, for their health and for a fulfilling life. The 40-year-old from Maryland started Travel More Work Less, a website and online community that encourages people to use their vacation time. She knows firsthand how hard this is — but also why it’s so important.
IndependentTraveler.com: Why did you decide to make this your mission?
Kanisa Baker: I used to be self-employed and could take off as much time as I wanted. But when I took a job with another company, I found that I was barely using my vacation time to take any significant trips. After talking to friends and coworkers and doing research on American workers, I saw how many of us are not taking much-needed and deserved time off.
Some studies show that we are more likely to suffer from heart disease [if we don’t take] vacation — women especially. I started Travel More Work Less so that together we could identify real strategies to break from the routine and stresses of life and put more vacation days on the calendar.
IT: Why do you think Americans don’t use all of their vacation time?
KB: Because of a lack of planning. Many of us have an “autopilot” lifestyle, and planning a vacation can be a lot of work. You have to identify the location and the best time to go, search for the best price, figure out which activities are available, determine the best place to stay, etc. So many times we throw up our hands and either stick with our regular daily routine or just have a “staycation.”
There is choice and intention behind taking a vacation. If you don’t plan for a “real” vacation, you end up using your days off to stay home or visit family. Those options can be even more stressful than a day at work.
IT: Some people don’t use vacation time because they can’t afford to go away. What would you advise them to do?
KB: This is one of the top reasons holding people, myself included, back. The costs associated with life, work and stress get in the way. Travel then gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list. One useful piece of advice is to focus on small, daily and intentional [money-saving] habits like eating out less, letting go of the unused gym membership, or selling stuff that you don’t need, all to increase travel funds. Save that money instead in a vacation fund.
IT: What advice do you have for people who are worried about work piling up if they took time off?
KB: I wrote a guide about this exact topic, and one of the strategies I discuss is implementing a cross-training program within your company/organization. This could reduce the amount of work to come back to after a vacation.
IT: Is it okay for people to check email or do work while they’re away?
KB: Well, checking email on the beach is certainly better than checking it in the office. But being on vacation means it’s important to be in the present moment with your loved ones. Perhaps it’s best to vacation is spots where Wi-Fi is very limited!
IT: Do you think people would take more time off if employers gave their employees more vacation time?
KB: That’s a tough one. It really comes down to the person. Either you are someone that values and sees the importance of vacation time or you aren’t.
IT: Where do you like to travel on vacation?
KB: As I’ve gotten older, I found I get really antsy on long plane rides. So I’ve enjoyed exploring vacation spots closer to home like Canada, Central America and the Caribbean. My last vacation was to the Florida Keys and Mexico.
I’ve traveled a lot so far this year, and my formerly sturdy toiletry kit looks like it’s gone through a hurricane. The seemingly indestructible little bottles I bought for shampoo and lotion have cracked and exploded. The zipper broke on my toiletry bag. Teeny jars filled with cosmetics all broke or depleted at the same time. Even the cool collapsible travel hangers I bought years ago saw their final days.
Instead of heading to the Container Store to replace all of these items, I did one better: I scrounged around my house and sought out ordinary items that could do double duty in my toiletry kit. And you know what? I like them much better than the items I could buy in a store, because they’re free, environmentally friendly and durable.
Here are six items I’ve upcycled so far this year.
Old prescription bottles: With their transparent tangerine-colored sides and easy-pop-off lids, old prescription bottles are perfect to fill with facial wash, hair gel and lotion. They’re usually spill proof, and they only hold a few ounces (hear that, TSA?). Plus, the bottles are wide enough to scoop product from. (Biggest travel pet peeve: When you use a hotel toiletry and only half the shampoo ever comes out. Grr!) I soak the labels off and affix a masking tape label on the side.
Eyeglass cases: Every time I buy new eyeglasses, I’m given a new case, which ends up collecting dust bunnies in a drawer. Not anymore. Eyeglass cases are now my go-to carrier for phone chargers — they stay beautifully protected and untangled. I also use one for little items that are hard to locate in larger bag: things like nail clippers, nail files, pens and flash drives.
Pill organizers: I hate carting full-size cosmetics on a trip. They take up too much space and weigh down my bag. I found an old pill organizer, washed and sanitized it, and filled the compartments with foundation, concealer, lipstick and blush. My makeup now takes up much less space, and it’s simple to use. Tip: Buy a small lip brush for the lipstick — makes it easier to apply.
Rubber bands: When the last of my travel hangers broke, I realized I really didn’t need to replace them. I loved them because they were covered with non-skid material that kept my shirts from sliding off, the way they do on normal metal or wooden hangers. But now all I do is bring a few large rubber bands (those thick ones that come wrapped around broccoli or asparagus at the grocery store are perfect) and slip them onto both ends of a hotel room hanger. Voila — my clothes don’t slide off the hangers anymore.
Dental floss boxes: When your dental floss runs out, don’t throw away the box. Instead, use it to hide cash when you’re traveling. The box stays in my toiletry kit, and I’m pretty sure a burglar, even if he looked in my toiletry bag, likely wouldn’t open up the floss.
Duct tape: The morning I set out on a hiking trip in West Virginia, the aglet at the end of my hiking shoe’s laces ripped off. Duct tape to the rescue! Duct tape is always the No. 1 item I pack on trips, because it can fix everything — a broken strap on a backpack, a hole in a shoe, a tear in your trousers. It can even serve as a quickie bandage when you get a cut. I either roll a few yards and tuck it into my bag, or I rip off some pieces and affix them to the outside of my luggage, for use later. (Bonus: It helps make your bag easy to identify on the luggage carousel).
Would you welcome a traveler you’ve never met to come sleep on your couch for free? If you would, you’re not alone; CouchSurfing.com, a website devoted to connecting travelers with local hosts, has a network of some 12 million members, including Jamie Matczak.
Matczak lives with her chocolate lab in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and has been a Couchsurfing host for three years. She’s hosted guests from Hawaii, France, Denmark, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Texas, Wisconsin and South Korea. “I look at it as a fellowship type of exchange,” says Matczak. “I am providing a room in exchange for a new friendship!”
We chatted with Matczak by email about why she’s chosen to host, whether she’s had any safety issues and how welcoming strangers into her home has changed the way she travels.
IndependentTraveler.com: What made you decide to start hosting?
Jamie Matczak: I had stayed with families on a trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2011 and was looking for a similar experience on a solo trip to Spain in 2012. I discovered the Couchsurfing site and loved the idea of offering travelers (surfers) a couch/room as they are traveling. I signed up, and even though I didn’t use it for my trip to Spain, I began to receive requests as a host. I had previously hosted women from France through a different program and enjoyed the experience.
IT.com: What are the biggest benefits of hosting?
JM: The biggest benefit is getting to know someone new, possibly someone from another country. As a traveler who has been to more than 30 countries, I enjoy hearing about life and cultures in other places. I want to have conversations and learn, and that occurs with all of my guests. I also like the opportunity to show some highlights of my city, Green Bay. Surfers arrive at my house as strangers but leave as friends.
IT.com: As a woman who lives alone, have you ever had any safety concerns about hosting strangers? How do you protect yourself?
JM: The site has verification checks, so you know if people are legit. Every profile also has a references area, so I can read what other hosts have said about a potential surfer. I typically don’t accept guests who don’t have any references, or if I feel something seems “off.” I tell friends or family when a surfer is arriving, just as a back-up. So far, I have not had any bad or unsafe experiences. I choose to believe that people on the site are using it for something positive.
IT.com: Why host people for free instead of charging a nightly fee with a service such as Airbnb?
JM: I have considered using a site such as Airbnb where a fee is charged, but I don’t think that would fit with my busier lifestyle. With Couchsurfing, I don’t feel as bad if I have to decline a request or turn off “hosting” if needed. Also, I think if I charged a fee, I would feel under more pressure for my home to be spotless and perfect. Most Couchsurfers are happy to have a bed and are easygoing if my home doesn’t look perfect. And it’s really not about the money. With Airbnb, I might gain more in my pocketbook, but not necessarily gain a richer experience.
IT.com: Who’s the most memorable guest you’ve ever had?
JM: EVERY guest has been memorable in their own way. As a few examples, I hosted two friends from Australia who were driving to all 50 states. I met two women from Wisconsin who were in Green Bay to volunteer for the weekend. I hosted a young woman from France who was studying for the semester at our local university, and when she arrived, her campus apartment was not available. In January, a father and son from Germany stayed with me because the father took his son to a Packers game as a high school graduation gift. Most recently, I hosted a young man from Korea who is walking across North America.
IT.com: Are you still in touch with folks you’ve hosted? Have you ever slept on their couches in return?
JM: Yes! Most of them are on Facebook, so that is a great way to stay in touch. I have not visited any of my guests, but I hope to in the future. I have tentative plans to visit the family of the German father and son, as well as a former surfer who is now in Taiwan.
IT.com: Has hosting people changed the way you travel? If so, how?
JM: Definitely. I lot of people ask me what I “get” out of hosting. It’s not just a new friendship, but I also feel like, as a solo traveler, I have been really fortunate on my trips. People have loaned me a cell phone to use or offered me rides when I’ve been lost. Of course, you have to be cautious and careful when traveling alone, especially as a female. But hosting people has made me more aware that most people in this world are good and want to do good things. They want to be helpful to other travelers, just as I do.
Many travelers are taking unnecessary risks when they use homesharing services like Airbnb or ridesharing services like Uber — in ways that could lead to identity theft — according to a survey by LifeLock.
The provider of identity theft protection services reports that if you’re considering renting out your home or spare room, you’d better assume your guests are snoops: 41 percent of survey respondents (including 57 percent of millennials) admitted to looking through personal items when visiting someone else’s home. Meanwhile, 49 percent of respondents said they often fail to lock up personal documents in their own homes.
Even if you wouldn’t consider having a stranger stay in your home, the LifeLock survey found that many people make what could be costly mistakes when they’re traveling; 37 percent of respondents do not put their mail on hold during vacations. LifeLock notes that criminals could gain access to personal data by accessing your mail while you’re away. We’d also add that an overflowing mailbox is a signal that you’re out of town, which could entice burglars to target your home. (For more on this, see Keep Your Home Safe on Vacation: 9 Essential Tips.)
Ridesharing services and taxis are another opportunity for your personal data to be compromised. Nearly a quarter of survey respondents (24 percent) admitted that they’d left a valuable personal item such as a wallet or cell phone behind in a taxi, Uber or other ridesharing vehicle. The number was even higher among millennials at 41 percent.
So how can you keep yourself safe? LifeLock recommends password-protecting your devices and enabling the “lost phone” function (so you can track the device or even delete its contents remotely). If you’re hosting guests in your home, make sure any sensitive documents are safely locked away, and offer a different Wi-Fi network for guests than the one you use yourself.
Nadine Sykora is one of the most popular travel video bloggers on YouTube, with more than a quarter-million people subscribing to her channel. Known online as “Hey Nadine,” the spunky and fearless 28-year-old Canadian takes a refreshing approach to her videos, documenting excellent adventures and being upfront for the camera when things don’t go so right. She spends almost half the year on the road.
IndependentTraveler.com: Are you surprised by your success on YouTube?
Nadine Sykora: Success is a tricky word. It depends on your definition. I don’t say I’m surprised since I’ve worked years and years to get to where I am. I say I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and happy with where I am.
IT: How did you catch the travel bug?
NS: I’ve been traveling since 2010 when after I graduated university, before getting a “real job.” I decided to move overseas on a working holiday to New Zealand for one year. During that time, I worked part-time and did short trips around New Zealand, China, Bali, Malaysia and Singapore. Ever since then I was hooked — the excitement of new things, new places. The full-on travel bug!
IT: You’re a lot more honest in your videos and blogs than a lot of travelers. If things don’t go well, you’re perfectly willing to say so, even admitting, as you did in one blog a few years ago, to emotionally breaking down after your equipment was stolen. Why did you decide to take such an honest approach?
NS: I think it’s important to show all aspects of travel. The good, the bad, the silly and the ugly. Because it’s all those experiences combined that give those fully enriched travel experiences. Scrolling through Instagram, it’s easy to [think] that travel is just beautiful locations and perfect selfie moments, but honestly it’s so much more than that. So I like to show that.
IT: How do you make a living when you’re not traveling?
NS: I’m actually home a surprising amount, as I’ve started to space out my trips a bit more as I get into my sixth year of travel. I spend the time at home editing content, pitching new ideas and projects, and doing a bunch of odd jobs for work like writing or working on video projects.
IT: What are your most recent favorite destinations? And care to admit the places you probably won’t ever go back to?
NS: My most recent favorite is definitely Patagonia (see video below). It’s just simply so spectacular there! So many picture-perfect locations. I don’t really have any places I wouldn’t go back to, simply because each time you visit a place, you have new experiences. So to me it’s not just the places I visit, but the experiences I have.
IT: Where are would you like to go where you haven’t been to yet?
NS: India and Ireland. They are my top places for sure.
IT: And where are you going next?
NS: No idea! Maybe Mexico, maybe Asia again. The world is my oyster.
“Backpacking Europe” used to refer solely to travel with an oversized canvas sack strapped across your shoulders, with nights spent in a youth hostel bunk bed. Today, “backpacking” is more of a mindset than an actual act, says James Feess, author of the book “The Savvy Backpacker’s Europe on a Budget.”
Originally from the U.S. Midwest, James and his wife Susan have spent time living in Paris and traveling throughout Europe. Their website The Savvy Backpacker offers advice for independent travelers who literally backpack across Europe and those who apply a backpacker mentality to travel comfortably yet budget-consciously.
We recently chatted with James and Susan, who are now in New York City.
IndependentTraveler.com: Is there an age limit on backpacking?
James and Susan Feess: No way! We’ve seen backpackers of all ages. The last time we were staying in a hostel in London we met a 70-something Australian man who was traveling around Europe for multiple months.
IT: Why do you think most people outgrow the backpacker mindset?
JF & SF: It’s no secret that most backpackers tend to be young and broke, so they do everything as cheaply as possible. It’s natural for people to upgrade their travel styles as they get older, start earning more money and get accustomed to a better standard of living. However, a lot of people maintain the backpacker mindset regardless of income level or age.
IT: You’re now in your early 30s. How has the mindset changed for you both since you first started backpacking?
JF & SF: We find now that we focus on value and not cost — and that’s a big difference. For example, you can take a bus across Europe very cheaply. However, it takes much longer than the train. So it really isn’t a great value because it’s costing you time, which is more valuable than money. Now we take the train whenever we travel because the extra cost is a good value. The same principle applies to food, lodging, entertainment, [almost] everything.
IT: What are some of the non-monetary benefits to traveling like a backpacker?
JF & SF: Traveling on a budget helps get you closer to living like local. Staying in a five-star hotel and eating at high-end restaurants is about as far away from local living as you can get because most locals don’t do that. However, budget travelers have to stay in more modest accommodation and eat where the locals eat because that’s the best value and cheapest option. Personally, we prefer renting a modest apartment. This gives you an instant connection to a neighborhood.
IT: Do you travel like a backpacker 100 percent of the time? Any indulgences you want to confess?
JF & SF: We try sticking to our backpacker roots but we do “splurge” a bit more these days. Back when we were in our early 20s we would try surviving on as little food as possible, but now we have a nicer meal once or twice. Sometimes we’ll go really crazy and buy the $11 bottle of wine instead of the $6 bottle!
Having a little more money does open new doors to better experience a culture. For example, we’ve taken a few cooking classes in France, and this is a great hands-on way to experience the culture that we couldn’t afford on a backpacker’s budget. Another possibility: specialized walking tours. They can get a little expensive, but they give you so much information that you’d never know otherwise.
IT: Tell us about some of your favorite places you’ve visited over the last year.
JF & SF: While it isn’t Europe, we actually just got back from traveling to Cape Town, South Africa. It was an amazing trip and we were able to “live it up” since everything is really cheap there. It was probably our most luxurious trip. For example, we got a really nice steak meal for $15 and alcohol was only $3 to $4 in a restaurant. We ended up staying nearly two weeks.
IT: Aside from occasional trips elsewhere, you tend to focus on Europe. Are there any spots in Europe you haven’t visited but want to?
JF & SF: We still haven’t visited Iceland. It’s at the top of our list. Unfortunately, Iceland isn’t cheap. So we’ll keep saving until we have enough. We want to spend a lot more time in Italy and Spain. And Croatia. And Berlin in the summer.