This is part one of a two-part series about my experience with a “free vacation” offer. In this segment, I’ll outline how my friend and I “won” and what we had to endure to claim our “gift.” Check back for part two in 2015, when I’ll discuss if we were actually able to book a trip and, if so, how it went, if it’s worth the time and whether it’s really free.
We’ve all been there. You’re at a sporting event or a fair, and someone approaches you to “register for a chance to win a free vacation.” In my case, it was at a concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and my friend, who’s had a bit of a rough year, was excited by the prospect.
As she filled in her name and contact information, I snatched one of the entry forms and read the fine print on the back. It was standard legal jargon, stating that Sundance Vacations, the company sponsoring the contest, would have the right to get in touch with entrants using any means provided. I figured it was just a ploy to generate email addresses and phone numbers, so I declined.
Fast forward two months. My friend received a phone call from someone at Sundance, telling her they had “good news” and asking her to call for more information. First she dialed me: “Are you sitting down?” she asked. “I never win ANYTHING, but we’re going on vacation!”
A phone call to the company confirmed that we would, in fact, have to sit through a presentation as a condition of acceptance. We assumed a sales pitch would follow, but we were told the whole process would have us in and out within an hour.
Slightly different from companies that offer timeshares, Sundance sells “wholesale vacations,” which it touts as discounted or overstock trips that are less expensive because 1) the company purchases vacations in bulk, and 2) it owns the properties that are available for booking. (I won’t even try to figure out why Sundance needs to “purchase” said vacations if it owns the properties, lest my head explode.)
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During the initial presentation, an attractive and sharply dressed woman attempted to keep the attention of a dozen attendees through witty banter (“I’ll keep this short. I just ran a marathon yesterday, and my legs are killing me”), condescending comments (to a young and slightly disheveled couple with two children: “Surely you’ve never been to Disney World”) and the promise of a “suitcase” of affordable vacations from which we’d be able to draw over a period of several years after signing up and shelling out a modest monthly fee. She went on to explain a bit of math as she clicked through some PowerPoint slides.
I had just checked Facebook for the 17th time and was nearly dozing off in my chair when a team of sales representatives came bursting through the back door of the presentation room like an army of Stormtroopers. Each group of visitors was led through a hallway and into a giant room with tables, chairs and, oddly, beach balls — where thousands (literally, we saw the Polaroids everywhere) of customers before us were convinced to purchase vacation packages.
The woman in charge of giving us our first hard sell was actually nice and didn’t pressure us as much as we expected she might. Then her boss came over, asked if we were treated well and turned up the heat by offering us an even sweeter deal. He backed down after we gave him a firm “no” and told him that we had read nothing but negative reviews about the company online. He gave us a couple of weak excuses but eventually realized we weren’t going to budge.
Ninety minutes after our initial arrival, we were taken to meet with our final obstacle, a friendly older gentleman who further lowered the prices and even tossed in meal vouchers. Ultimately, we said no, and he grudgingly gave us the paperwork we needed to claim our four-day, three-night trip to our choice of Cancun, Montego Bay or San Juan.
Apparently we have 60 days to call a phone number (not toll-free), ask questions, gather information (we’d love to see photos of the resort options, as none were provided) and “register” to receive our “reservation deposit invoice.” After receiving it, we have 30 days to send it back with a deposit of $100 each, which is then applied to the imposed taxes and fees of anywhere from about $100 – $185. (Technically the trip is a gift, not a prize, so Sundance isn’t required to cover taxes and fees.) We’re told the deposit is refundable until actual reservations have been made. Stay tuned for part two, coming sometime in 2015, when I’ll tell you whether the trip actually happens.
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In the meantime, tell us if you’ve ever been a part of a “free vacation” offer. How did it work out?
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
I’ve never quite gotten the whole Seven Wonders of the World thing. Isn’t wonder-ful subjective? What others find awe inspiring, I sometimes find shrugworthy. The Christ the Redeemer statue, for instance, which in 2007 was named one of the Seven Wonders of the New World, stirs absolutely nothing in me. Conversely, places that have amazed me (Australia’s Uluru being one) others have found mildly interesting at best.
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And how do we even define a “wonder”? Is it a great work of humanity? Is it a stunning natural landscape or phenomenon? Is it something that represents a monumental moment in time?
We, all of us, answer this question differently, which raises the question what are the “wonders” we have encountered on our travels?
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IndependentTraveler.com reached out to some of our contributing editors, as well as our readers on Twitter and Facebook for their lists of the wonders they’ve encountered on their travels.
Without further ado, here are our many Wonders of the World. Please share your list in the comments below.
Brittany Chrusciel, Contributing Editor
Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Mangal Mahadev (108-foot-tall Shiva statue), Ganga Talao, Mauritius
Jenny Szymanski Jones (via Facebook)
Victoria Falls, Zambia
Gulfoss Waterfall, Iceland
Grand Canyon, Arizona, U.S.A.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief
Big Sur, California, U.S.A.
Kingshuk Mazumder (@KingShuk03 via Twitter)
Lotus Temple, New Delhi, India
Erica Silverstein, Contributing Editor
Great Wall of China
Yosemite National Park, California, U.S.A.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
@jayme_p via Twitter
Magens Bay, St. Thomas, U.S. V.I.
Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada
Jessica McMillan (@jedijesser via Twitter)
The Ink Pots, Banff, Alberta, Canada
Chris Gray Faust, Contributing Editor
Pantheon, Rome, Italy
Ashley Kosciolek, Contributing Editor
Colosseum and Vatican City, Italy
Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland
–written by Dori Saltzman
I’m by no means a hotel snob. Give me a fair rate, a clean room and a comfortable bed, and I’m happy; throw in free breakfast (no matter how basic) and free Wi-Fi, and I’m over the moon. Alternative lodging tends to be more my thing — hostels when I was a carefree backpacker, tents for outdoorsy adventures and vacation rentals for family gatherings.
It’s no surprise then that I loved my first Airbnb stay. The concept is simple: Book space in someone’s home (a room, a bed, a guesthouse) for — hopefully — less than the cost of a standard hotel. We tried it out on a recent trip to see family in Los Angeles, and it was a much better choice than the hotel we were considering. Based on that experience, here are five reasons why Airbnb might be better than a hotel.
Location: We wanted to be close to my brother’s home, but the nearest hotels were a few miles away and quite pricey. When we turned to Airbnb, we found a rental located just three blocks — walking distance! — from his house in the same residential neighborhood. Because Airbnb properties can be anywhere, you’re not limited to business districts and busy boulevards — great if you want something off the beaten path or closer to atypical attractions (like family).
Space: For $200+ a night, my family of four could have shared one room in a hotel, forcing the adults to sit in the dark after 8:30 p.m. bedtimes, and relegating early riser babies (and their grudging grownup companions) to play in the bathroom with the door closed at 6:45 a.m. For a much lower rate, we instead booked a 1,000-square-foot, two-floor guesthouse. After putting the children to sleep upstairs, my husband and I hung out in the downstairs living space, kicking back on the L-shaped couch or snacking at the kitchen table, lights ablaze.
Amenities: So we didn’t get free breakfast with Airbnb. We did get free Wi-Fi, cookies, fruit and bottled water. We also were invited to use our hosts’ patio, pool and hot tub, and the art supplies in the crafts area of their guesthouse. My son and nephew had a rousing dance party listening to our hosts’ CDs on the upstairs stereo. My guess is you won’t get the same niceties renting out a bed in someone’s apartment, but you do benefit from being a guest in someone’s home, rather than a customer in someone’s corporate brand.
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Flexibility: Instead of worrying about strict check-in and check-out times that might interfere with naptime or force us out of our digs too early, we had the pleasure of working out arrangements that suited both our hosts and us. They had an outing planned the day we arrived, so they left a key for us to come at our leisure; when asked about check-out, their response was essentially “whenever.” Our last day was street cleaning day with a two-hour parking window on the other side; our host not only made sure we knew the rules, but let us park in his driveway so we wouldn’t have to keep moving our car.
Human Contact: I don’t often strike up conversations with the hotel check-in staff (other than to complain about my key card not working or the lack of a porta-crib), but we ran into our hosts twice and chatted pleasantly with them. Certainly, your experience will be much more social if you’re actually staying in your host’s home with them, rather than in a detached guesthouse, but either way it’s a fun way to meet people and learn about local culture.
That isn’t to say Airbnb doesn’t have its drawbacks. While our stay was wonderful, there’s a lot more room for properties to be less ideal than advertised, for hosts to cancel your reservation due to their personal needs, and for personality conflicts to detract from a stay with heavy interaction between you and your hosts (or additional guests). My colleague had an awkward first Airbnb stay, and my in-laws were a bit disappointed to learn they weren’t allowed to have a glass of wine on the verandah at their host’s place, due to a “no alcohol” policy not clearly delineated in the Airbnb listing. Not to mention that certain cities are questioning the legality of Airbnb stays in the first place.
But if you’re looking for accommodations that don’t fit the typical hotel bill, give it a try. At best, you’ll find just what you need at the right price; at worst, it’ll be a funny story a few years down the road (and you can soothe your soul by writing a biting review).
–written by Erica Silverstein
Thanksgiving season is a time to take stock of life and focus on all the positives, a time for gratitude and appreciation. With so much of my life centered on travel, I thought I’d take some time this season to reflect on all the people I’ve met on the road — even if just for a moment — for whom I am eternally grateful.
There have been many: men and women, mostly nameless, who have offered a helping hand when I needed one or opened their homes to me when I was far from my own home.
Like the unseen man at the Miami airport who paid for my dinner and gave a $20 bill to my waiter to give to me when all the credit card machines and ATMs in the airport stopped working and I had no cash to pay for food after not eating all day. I never saw his face, only his back as he walked out of the restaurant into the terminal and disappeared in the crowd.
Or the elderly Irish lady in Killarney who ushered me and a friend into her cozy, warm living room when she saw us waiting in the pouring rain under one umbrella on a chilly summer day. She poured us tea, showed us photographs of her children and gave us hug when our bus showed up a half hour later.
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Then there was the kind clerk at a random hotel in Wellington, New Zealand, that I had walked into when I couldn’t bear to stay at a hostel one more night and needed just one night alone. He had no room, but sensing how upset I was, he made some calls for me and then drove me to another hotel on the other side of the city.
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And I will never forget Blanche and Alex, a 20-something couple whom my sister and I met in the Glasgow train station. We had noticed them because we thought they looked cool and had stopped to ask them where the interesting places to hang out were. Instead of giving us directions, Blanche took us on a tour of the city, invited us back to their apartment and threw a party so we could meet a bunch of people.
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Others who showed me kindness where none was due include the man who picked me and my sister (scraggly-looking backpackers at the time) up on the side of the road in Northern Ireland (with his two small kids in the car) and drove us to the ferry terminal; the ferry employee who stalled the boat’s departure to get us on even though we were late; and the faceless woman on the New Zealand Interislander ferry who pushed a cup of water underneath the bathroom door when she heard me throwing up from motion sickness.
To these people — and the ones I’ve probably forgotten — I say: Thank you. I am grateful for the kindness you showed me.
Express your gratitude to the strangers who have helped you in your travels below.
– written by Dori Saltzman
Traveling (and packing) for the holidays this year? We can’t tell you what to expect from the person sitting next to you on your flight — if they are sick, like to snore or have a crying baby sitting on their lap — but we can tell you which baggage fees to expect from your air carrier and how to beat them.
First, make sure your carry-on is complimentary. If not, bring only the most essential items on your person or in a small bag that could be considered your personal effect, and then check the rest. If you are checking a bag, make sure to determine whether prepayment is available online prior to arrival at the airport. Many airlines allow you to pay for checked baggage on their site or app, and sometimes it’s at a reduced price.
The next thing to consider is how much you’re bringing. Always weigh your bags before you arrive at the check-in counter. Guessing a number may be fun on “The Price is Right,” but not so when that number might result in extra fees. If you must pack everything you own, take advantage of all the space you have; that means packing your carry-on and, if you can manage them, two checked bags. We noticed that many of the fees for overweight bags exceed how much it would be to bring two checked bags, so divide your belongings into two suitcases, pay less and potentially have room to pack anything you purchase while you are away.
Our award for the best airline to fly with excess baggage this season goes to Southwest: zero baggage fees unless you fill over capacity, and even then, the overweight fee is less than most. As an added bonus, Southwest also doesn’t charge for things like making changes to a nonrefundable flight. Our vote for the most nickel and diming goes to Spirit. Notorious for added fees, Spirit not only charges more per bag, but might be Scrooge of the airlines with their $2 holiday surcharge. Bah humbug!
Fees for international flights may vary by region, so double-check your carrier’s website to be sure. Also, discounted fees are available for members of most airline loyalty programs.
Fees: Carry-on is free; first checked bag $25 and second $25. Overweight bags are $75.
Fees: Carry-on is free; first checked bag $25 and second $35. Overweight bags are $100 to $200.
Fees: Carry-on is free; first checked bag $25 and second $35. Overweight bags are $100 to $200.
Fees: Carry-on is $25 to $50; first bag is $25 and second $30. Overweight bags are $75.
Fees: None for carry-on or first bag. Second checked bag is $50. Overweight bags are $100.
(Note: Starting in 2015, JetBlue will offer a new fare that doesn’t include a free checked bag.)
Fees: None for carry-on, first or second checked bag. Overweight bags are $75.
Fees: Carry-on is $35 to $100; first bag is $30 to $100 and second bag is $40 to $100. Overweight bags are $25 to $100. A $2 surcharge will be tacked on to existing baggage fees from December 18 through January 5.
Fees: Carry-on is free; first checked bag $25 and second is $35. Overweight bags are $100 to $200.
Fees: Carry-on is free; first checked bag $25 and second is $35. Overweight bags are $100 to $200.
Fees: Carry-on is free; first checked bag is $25 and second bag is $25. Overweight bags are $50 to $100.
– written by Brittany Chrusciel
Maybe you’ve landed on a glacier in Alaska, ridden a donkey in Greece or hiked to a mountaintop monastery in Tibet. Whatever the experience, it’s likely you’ve got photos to share or, at the very least, stories to tell. The question is: Should you?
With selfie rates at an all-time high and social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter just a tap away, it’s tough to exercise restraint when you’re excited about your once-in-a-lifetime trip. According to a recent New York Times article, though, your friends might not be quite as excited about your exploits as you are; if you’re not careful, your posts could be considered bragging.
For me, Facebook mainly functions as a storage facility for my photos. From there, they’re easy to find and reference, should I need to pull one of them for a story. I try my best not to caption them with anything other than facts, and you’ll rarely — if ever — see me posting photos of myself individually. Has anyone ever asked me to stop posting travel albums? No. Do people secretly want me to? Possibly.
If you’re one of those people, there are some quick and easy solutions: 1) Hide my content. I’ll never know. 2) Unfriend me. If my (infrequent) posts are that bothersome to you, we probably shouldn’t be friends anyway.
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To those who actually do brag about their travel adventures, please stop ruining it for the rest of us. You’re as bad as people who take photos of every single piece of food they eat, let the world know that they’re at the gym by posting endless workout selfies or update their statuses whenever their children get sick … or say a new word … or use the bathroom. #obnoxious #reallyobnoxious #almostasobnoxiousaspeoplewhohashtageverythingfornoreason
When it comes to sharing about your travels on social media, what’s your take? Do you post, or do you keep your experiences to yourself? Be sure to leave your comments below.
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
I fall for it every time: the idea that train travel is grand and romantic, much the same way I always expect New Year’s Eve to be exciting and momentous. With both, I usually end up disappointed and ready for it to be over.
I was recently reminded of this on a three-hour train ride from Newark, NJ, to Washington D.C. on Amtrak. Though it’s more of a commuter train experience than a travel one, I nevertheless initially visualized sitting in the dining car with a book and something pleasant to eat, relaxing all the way to D.C. The reality of the ride was somewhat different: the dining car was full and I had to walk through two train cars before I found an open seat – and the woman sitting in the adjoining seat was none too thrilled when I asked her to remove her two bags and discarded newspaper so that I could sit. Three hours turned into four when a “police action” in Philadelphia stopped our train cold. By the time I got to Washington D.C. I was hungry and irritated.
Looking back on it, I have no idea why I thought it would be different. I’ve trained it around Europe before and never walked away relaxed or feeling like I’d just had a grand adventure.
In fact, I have almost no memories of any of my long-haul train rides. My first “real” train ride, from London to the Holyhead ferry terminal in North Wales as a 21-year-old backpacker, is a complete blur. I slept through almost the entire thing, exhausted after a flight from New York City to London. I have a few bleary memories of opening my eyes to see what looked like a castle whir by and thinking how beautiful it must be and what a waste it was that I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
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Another overnight train ride, from Bucharest, Romania to Sofia, Bulgaria, is also mostly a blur, though my strongest sense memory is one of fear. Fear of finding out I would have to share my sleeping compartment with a stranger – this worry popped up at every stop we made, all through the night (I never did have to share, though I didn’t sleep very well either). Fear that if I left to go get food from the dining car, someone would break into the cabin and take my stuff (I stayed in my compartment all night, forgoing food for reassurance).
Yet despite my mostly unromantic and humble train travels, one of my most intriguing travel memories actually did take place on an overnight train from Prague to Zurich in the days before the European Union existed.
When we got to the German border, immigration officers got on the train and passed through every car, looking at each passenger’s identification. The German officer who entered our car wore a dour face and demanded our passports in a tone of voice that invited no argument. There were six of us in the car: my sister and me (U.S. citizens) and four Italians traveling together. The officer took the first Italian’s passport, looked at it, looked at her, looked at the passport again and then handed it back. He did the same with me. Then he took a second Italian’s passport. Looked at it, looked at the guy, looked at the passport again, frowned and held on to it. He then proceeded to check my sister’s passport and those of the two remaining Italians before finally turning back to the young man’s passport he still held.
The officer held up the passport and inspected it, then looked at the man for what felt like an eternity. Suddenly, the officer started laughing, handed the passport back and left. We were all stunned. That entire routine had been the officer’s idea of a joke — something to keep himself amused during the monotony of checking passports, I guess.
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That incident is one of my strongest memories of a six-week backpacking trip in Europe, and it happened on the train. Perhaps that’s why the notion of romantic, exotic, grand and, most importantly, memorable train trips has stuck with me. Train trips may be mostly boring, sleep-inducing experiences, but you never know what might happen.
Have you ever had a memorable experience while traveling on a train? Tell us about it in the comment section below.
– written by Dori Saltzman
I came across an article on Huffington Post about three men from Norway who earned a Guinness World Record for passing through 19 countries in a 24-hour period. The headline caught my attention: how did they do that? But a larger question also came to mind. What is the appeal of simply stepping foot in a place? Moreover, how do you personally define having been somewhere?
Admittedly, I take pride in knowing how many places I’ve been, but I’ve experienced a day in just one destination (let alone 19) and haven’t always felt like I really saw it. Cruising, for instance, is a great way to see multiple places in a one-week vacation without ever leaving the ship, but so often time in port is limited to just a few hours. Taking that in to account, yes, I can say I visited a new place but without really knowing much about it.
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So how do you define where you’ve been?
I heard a story about a couple who are on a race to visit all 50 states and their only requirement for having “been there” is to have eaten a meal there. Others consider physically stepping foot within borders to suffice, while those with stricter travel integrity might have different standards.
Is it worth it to travel by the numbers? I’ve mused on this idea before, calling people who practice obsessive country-counting “not true travelers,” but I admit the thrill of visiting a new place and pinning a map is thoroughly satisfying.
So how to accurately track past places for the history books? The Traveler’s Century Club offers a list of both countries and territories for consideration — if you have been to 100 or more you’re eligible to join the club. Other travelers go strictly by the books: Commonwealths and territories don’t count. And others may even include a few states thrown into the mix. However you divide your scrapbook or photo albums, I think the most important thing to take away is what it was like to be there — really be there. If you can’t recall what it was like to be somewhere you’ve visited, then you’re losing the entire point of travel. If you could experience the culture, history, atmosphere and eccentricities of 19 countries in one day — that would be an accomplishment.
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– written by Brittany Chrusciel
On a recent trip to Seattle, I found myself wishing I hadn’t stayed in Lower Queen Anne. Sure, it’s a nice, centrally located neighborhood near the Space Needle, but I could have easily spent an entire vacation in the quirkier neighborhoods of Fremont and Ballard. I was even more disappointed with my choice in Portland, where I ended up between financial institutions and chain coffee shops instead of breweries and wacky food carts.
I vowed to stay at a hotel in a “cool neighborhood” on my next urban getaway, but quickly discovered how rare of a concept that actually is. The majority of traditional hotels tend to be in or near the center of town; however, there are still options for accommodations in neighborhoods off the beaten path. Here’s how to find them.
1. Research City Neighborhoods
When planning a city vacation, do your research to find out which neighborhoods are the most unique. Reddit is a decent resource for this — many cities have their own page on which you can ask locals for suggestions. Convention and visitors bureaus are another valuable resource, especially if you can email or call someone directly to chat about options.
“I always look for good restaurants,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of our sister site, Cruise Critic. “There’s usually a good scene around good food.” She also suggests researching interesting shops, art galleries and local markets.
2. Search for Rentals
If you’re traveling internationally in particular, look to stay in an apartment or flat that’s far enough from the tourist traps, yet close enough that you can catch a bus or subway to the center of town. Apartments and flats provide a great means to feel like a resident while you’re in town — why not visit that local market for ingredients to cook a regional delicacy in your own rental kitchen?
“Serviced flats are another good option,” says Brown. She suggests Adina Apartment Hotels, which are located in Hungary, Denmark, Germany and Australia. Farnum and Christ is also reliable for accommodations in London, she says.
Airbnb and HomeAway are good choices as well, and both offer map views that let you easily pick out properties in the neighborhood you’re after.
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3. Consider a Bed and Breakfast
If you want the convenience of a hotel without the impersonal downtown location, search for a bed and breakfast. You won’t likely find many (if any) in the central areas of cities.
For example, a quick search of B&Bs in Chicago reveals Ray’s Bucktown B&B and Wicker Park Inn Bed and Breakfast. Bucktown/Wicker Park is a trendy, historic neighborhood in Chicago, and is a short, direct subway ride from the center of town. Another search for B&Bs in Venice shows B&B Ca’Bella in the area of Cannaregio, where many locals live. This area is off the beaten path and away from most of the crowds, yet within reasonable walking distance of the Rialto Bridge.
4. Consider a Travel Agent
Don’t underestimate the power of a good travel agent, especially if you don’t have time to research unique accommodations. A travel agent can help you find what you want, along with other points of interest so you feel prepared. “Look at magazine hot lists for travel agents,” Brown suggests. “These type of accommodations can be intimidating.”
– written by Amanda Geronikos
In less than two weeks, I’m leaving for a trip to Iceland. Yes, Iceland, where a volcano is currently erupting.
Any mention of “Iceland” and “volcano” conjures up visions of the massive ash cloud produced by the famously unpronounceable Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010, grounding thousands of flights across Europe. Fortunately, this time the Bardarbunga volcano has been spewing out lava and smoke, not ash — at least so far.
I was already a little bit stressed out over this trip because of some ongoing health issues within my family, so hearing that I could potentially be stranded five time zones away from home if an ash cloud materializes was not exactly reassuring news.
As a travel writer, I typically advise people with concerns about a trip to purchase travel insurance, which will usually protect you if weather, illness or other calamities threaten your vacation. But because the volcano has been simmering for a few weeks now, most travel insurers are excluding any volcano-related losses from coverage (unless you purchased your policy well in advance).
Alas, I did not buy insurance when I first booked the trip, so there’s little I can do beyond ensuring that any last-minute reservations I’m making are fully refundable — and crossing my fingers that the volcano and health gods will be kind.
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This reminds me that every trip I take has some element of uncertainty, even if it’s usually not as dramatic as a lava-belching volcano. After all, you never know when a flight delay will strike, a family member will fall ill or a much-anticipated attraction will be closed. While insurance and advance planning can help cushion the blow, there are no guarantees that a trip will go smoothly — and in many ways, the risk of the unknown is part of travel’s essential appeal.
In that spirit, I’m embracing this trip to Iceland, worries and all. And next time, well … I just might purchase that travel insurance.
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– written by Sarah Schlichter