Home

Home Travel Tips Travel Deals Destinations Trip Reviews Forums Blog
The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

A canyon at Australia's UluruOf the five destinations on my ultimate travel bucket list, I have managed to tick off one so far: Australia. And it was everything I could have hoped for — which was fortunate because, as with many bucket list trips, it was expensive and required a serious time commitment.

But was it really fortunate?

No, it wasn’t.

You see, just stepping foot on Australian soil isn’t what made going there such an amazing bucket list trip for me. It was that I did it the “right” way. The right way for me, that is.

Australia is a huge country with lots to offer visitors. There are the vibrant cities in which you’ll find art museums, fine dining and lots of shopping; unrivaled natural attractions from the barren but beautiful Outback to the Great Barrier Reef teeming with life; a colorful criminal past and a rich Aboriginal culture. And then there are the Aussies themselves, laidback folks with a great sense of humor and a love for beer and barbecue.

But which part of this vast Down Under do you take in? Do you try to see it all, spending just a little time in any one place? Do you narrow it down and pick out just a few highlights, ignoring all else? How do you make such a once-in-a-lifetime trip as special as it can be, so that it truly is a bucket list experience?

Ask
In order to make any trip all you want it to be, you must first ask yourself, “Why am I going here?”

There is no wrong or right answer, but be honest with yourself, as the answer to this question is the start of planning your perfect trip. Is it simply important to you to tick off a new destination? Or are you intrigued because you’ve read some of the best new chefs are coming out of Melbourne? Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to hold a koala and feed a kangaroo?

11 Best Australia Experiences

Research
Once you’ve decided why you’re going, you can research the various ways to visit. If what’s important is simply being in the place and seeing its most iconic sites, a guided tour might be your best bet. On the other hand, if you’re most fascinated by a specific aspect of the place — the Aboriginal culture of Australia, let’s say — then finding day tours or attractions that focus on that one interest should be your priority.

In my dreams of Australia, I was always fascinated by the wildlife, the Outback, the Aussies and the Aboriginal culture. So everywhere I went I made sure to seek out these things. In Sydney, I visited a zoo that allowed me to cuddle a koala and feed kangaroos. Near Cairns, I chose to skip the Great Barrier Reef and instead stay on a cattle station for three days to get to know the owner and see what life was like in the Outback. On my visit to Uluru, I only booked Aborigine-led tours so I could experience the country’s interior from their perspective.

All these experiences resonated with me because they were the things I already knew were important to me. I didn’t need to see the Sydney Opera House; I don’t particularly like opera and touring a theater would not be enjoyable for me. I didn’t need to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge; if I were going to exercise my body that way, it would be on a hike in the Blue Mountains. And to this day I don’t really feel I missed out by not snorkeling off the Great Barrier Reef. Instead, I’m glad I skipped the seasickness and panic I always experience when snorkeling from a boat.

But other visitors to Australia might have left unsatisfied without some or all of those experiences.

Bucket list trips are dream trips, literally. We dream about the destinations years before ever visiting. We visualize what it will be like. But it’s only by being aware of those dreams and our expectations and then finding experiences that match them that we can actually make our dream bucket list trips come true.

How to Make Your Dream Trip a Reality


– written by Dori Saltzman

patricia schultzEleven years ago, a book called “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” became a runaway bestseller, inspiring millions of travelers to create their own must-visit lists. With the 1,200-page tome now in its second edition, we sat down with the author, Patricia Schultz, to talk about the difficulty of narrowing the world down to 1,000 places and to find out what’s still on her own bucket list.

IndependentTraveler.com: Have you visited every place in the book?
Patricia Schultz: No, I haven’t. If I was part of a typical travel guide team — let’s say Lonely Planet or Fodor’s — the answer would likely be different. But these “1,000 Places” books are written in the voice of one traveler … and there are only so many hours in my years!

IT: Were there any destinations or experiences you wanted to include but couldn’t? Why did you leave them out?
PS: With the “1,000 Places” revision (released in late 2011), I attempted to keep all my favorites from the original 2003 book while adding hundreds of new places I had discovered since then. That meant a complete reorganization, merging many places into a single entry at times to accommodate new information and destinations — 28 new countries! All while keeping the count at 1,000. But it’s laughable, really, to think that one could ever sit back and feel that no stone went unturned! That’s what keeps every traveler going. The intoxicating promise of something new and wonderful around the bend.

IT: How long would it realistically take to see everything in the book? (And how much money?)
PS: I’m afraid there is no easy answer for that. The book was not meant to be followed from cover to cover. I hope travelers discerningly pick and choose from this list of my favorites to add to their own wish lists. Does everyone want to see the fjords of Norway? The wine region of Chile? What if it is great art that inspires you — would you spend your time and money on an African safari? Time is short, [and] one needs to follow one’s own interests. What are the things and places that call you? Travel is a very personal thing.

Bucket List Travel Guide

IT: Some travelers may feel intimidated by the size of the book (or the size of the world!). Do you have any advice to help people feel inspired instead of overwhelmed?
PS: Most of us have “short lists.” Was there a film or book that inspired you? Has your family’s ancestry always fascinated you? Is ancient history your thing? Food? It is useless if you choose a destination simply because a friend has talked you into it or because you found a cheap flight. Follow your heart. Me? I wanted to go everywhere! So it was all good.

IT: The book has spawned a genre of sorts in travel — I can’t count how many lists I’ve seen of “places to visit before you’re 30″ or “destinations to take your family before your kids grow up.” Did you have any sense of how influential the book would be when you were writing it?
PS: No! I just kept writing away, trying to make sense of this vast and magnificent world and its wonders large and small. My eye was on the book deadline (I was given one year to write it but in fact it took eight), not future sales. I wanted to do the job as best I could, and hoped that I would sell enough copies to make my publisher happy and to pay off my credit card debt. I fulfilled both those goals! We have over 25 translations around the world, and it spawned a sister title, “1,000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before You Die.”

IT: What’s still on your own bucket list?
PS: There are many countries I have not yet visited … Fiji, Romania, Uganda, among others. And although I have visited massive countries like China, Russia and India, I don’t pretend to know them well. Then there are those perennial loves I could return to time and again — Paris, Rome, Hong Kong, Rio. I could go on. My bucket list has a bucket list!

How to Make Your Dream Trip a Reality

Want to win your own copy of “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”? Leave a comment below and tell us what’s at the top of your own travel wish list! Leave your comment by 11:59 p.m. ET on July 27, 2014. We’ll pick one winner at random. 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. Congratulations to Jeanette A., who has won the book! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

tired traveler with suitcasesEver arrived early at a new destination in the morning after a long red-eye flight and not had a hotel room where you could crash?

It happened to me on my last trip, when I landed in Reykjavik, Iceland, at 6:30 a.m. on the same day I was scheduled to board a cruise ship bound for Greenland. The ship’s reception staff were willing to hold my suitcases for me, but my cabin wouldn’t be ready to enter until late afternoon. That left me with most of the day to explore the city — if I could stay awake that long.

The morning started well, with a stroll along the waterfront and visits to the city’s most famous church, Hallgrimskirkja, and its avant-garde new concert hall, Harpa. But the combination of jet lag and a long, sleepless flight the night before had me drooping after a few hours.

As long as I was walking outside in the fresh air and sunlight, I could stay relatively alert. Any time I sat down, though — at a restaurant for lunch, on a pew in Hallgrimskirkja to listen to the organist practice, or, worst of all, inside a darkened theater to watch a timelapse photography presentation on the northern lights — my eyelids got heavy and my chin drifted inexorably toward my chest until I jerked myself awake again. As the hours wore on, my pleasurable day of sightseeing turned into a forced march through the city streets until I could board my ship and finally, finally take a nap.

10 Things to Do in the First 24 Hours of Your Trip

Even if you have a hotel room booked for the night, it’s not uncommon to arrive before the official check-in time and be told there simply aren’t any rooms available yet. One alternative is to try to find a day room where you can nap and shower. I recently discovered Between9and5.com, a site dedicated to hotels with same-day check-in and check-out. Unfortunately, offerings in some cities can be slim. There’s currently only one option in Reykjavik, and it starts at more than $200 a night — more than I was willing to pay for just a few hours.

Short of sleeping on a park bench, what do you do to stay awake and make the most of your first day when you’re exhausted after a flight?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

sick flu bedWhether it’s courtesy of jet lag’s effect on my body or the sniffling/sneezing/coughing child in the seat behind me, it seems I return home with some sort of cold or sinus issue every time I travel, leaving me feeling like I’ve been hit by a bus.

Enter Sickweather, a website and app that use social media posts to generate alerts that tell you whether illness is running rampant in your area. Simply set alerts for wherever you’re traveling — or for your home town — and be informed when the over-sharers on Facebook start chattering about their (or their children’s) latest maladies. Sickweather CEO Graham Dodge compares the technology used to gather data and tie it to a geographic location to the Doppler radar used to predict weather.

Pros: It’s always nice to know what you’re up against, abroad or in your own backyard. Imagine catching the flu while on vacation because you were unaware it was going around the city you were visiting, or contracting Norovirus during a trip to see Great Aunt Edna at the retirement home because you had no idea there was a local outbreak. It can often be easier to prevent illness than to fight it off after you’ve already gotten sick. The alerts offer solid reminders about hand washing and other precautions. Plus, the service and the app (available for iPhone now and Android later this summer) are both free.

18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling

Cons: Just because an acquaintance of yours tweets that her daughter has strep throat, it doesn’t mean she’s actually had the illness medically diagnosed. But Dodge tells us that with enough people reporting, the occasional misdiagnosis doesn’t matter: “The research of our advisors from Johns Hopkins University has concluded that this anecdotal data has a high correlation to clinical data provided by the CDC.” Right now, the service only gathers social media results that are in English, but Dodge says that the company will branch out as it grows. It’s worth noting that the app’s alerts will be useless if you’re planning to travel abroad with your phone in airplane mode, and although international alerts are available via the app, international maps are still in the works.

Would you try this app? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

airlinesThis post is part of our “Airlines Behaving Badly” series, which chronicles the oft-wicked ways of the air travel industry.

I’m leaving on a trip this Sunday and for the first time in my life I packed early and I packed light. Save the toothbrush, I crossed the toiletry Ts and dotted all the iPad Is into my carry-on suitcase so I could spend the rest of the week anticipating my travels and not dreading packing. But wouldn’t you know it, three major airlines — American, Delta and United — have reduced the size of an acceptable carry-on yet again (it flew under the radar until recently). I am flying one of these lines, and of course when I measured my bag, roughly 24 X 15 X 9, it was too large. The new size regulation — apparently enacted by United in March but effective immediately — is 22 inches long by 14 inches wide and 9 inches high, skimming a collective 5 inches off of what was a perfectly fine carry-on bag just weeks ago, and rendering my treasured, nearly new (expensive) indigo suitcase totally useless against checked-bag fees.

Pinned to a new FAA regulation (according to this article on Airfarewatchdog.com), it’s curious that fellow airlines JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin America and Frontier have maintained their 24 X 16 X 10-inch carry-on allocations.

Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Upon further review, George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, reflects that although the changes are subtle, they are being strictly enforced by the TSA and not as clearly explained by the airlines. The standard of a 45-inch maximum outside linear dimension is made null if the dimensions exceed any of the newly specified maximums. So in other words, 21 X 14 X 10 may meet the 45-inches-total guideline, but not the new 9-inches-high guideline. Therefore, the risk of having to re-pack, being sent to the back of the check-in line and potentially missing your flight is a real one — all traced back to a difference of one inch.

Whether it’s a regulation based in research, a ploy to cash in on more checked bags or simply a way to keep travelers on their toes, it’s exhausting keeping up with all the policy updates. I was finally ahead in the travel race, only to be handed a penalty card.

Have you encountered any trouble at the check-in counter lately? Vent about misguided measurements in the comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

dori saltzman Todai-ji Buddhist temple nara japanA lot of people who know what I do for a living assume I’m such an expert at independent travel that I plan everything on my own and eschew any kind of organized tour. After all, who really wants to be herded from place to place with 50 strangers, some of whom are super annoying? And what “true” traveler likes to be rushed between sites with not enough time to linger and take it all in?

But the truth is I like tours, especially in places I’ve never been before, where English is not widely spoken, the culture is very different and I’ve got limited time.

Doing tours in such places is relatively stress-free. On a recent trip to Tokyo with my husband, I wanted to be sure that I’d get to see all the most important tourist sites in as little time as possible (we only had two days), so we’d have time to explore other places on our own. The easiest way to do that was to book an organized tour.

On one half-day tour with tour company Viator, we visited Tokyo’s most popular Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple, and walked around part of the Imperial Gardens. We also passed by Skytree Tower, the Japanese Diet and the Imperial Palace.

I didn’t mind the zipping-past-sites part of the tour; we ended up going to Skytree Tower another day on our own time, and we were both totally uninterested in touring the Diet. The Imperial Palace is off-limits all the time, so we weren’t going to get too much closer anyway.

12 Best Japan Experiences

I will admit I would have liked more time at the Meiji Shrine. Located in a large park, there are lots of paths to walk, and there was more to see at the shrine itself when our guide started herding us out.

There were plenty of tourists there on their own. But without our guide, how would I have learned how to correctly pray at a Shinto shrine? (Throw a coin in the donation area, bow twice, clap twice, think your prayer, and bow again.) How would I have known that most Japanese people come to Shinto shrines to celebrate good things, like marriages and births, and go to Buddhist temples when someone dies?

Some of what the guide told us I could have read in a guide book, but not all of it. That detailed information that goes beyond guidebook fare is another reason why I like organized tours. A good guide will tell the story of the places you’re visiting, giving you the details and providing the nuances that make each place special. And they’ll answer whatever questions they can.

They also give me an idea of what places I might want to go back to if I’m ever in the area again. With only a day and a half in Kyoto, we chose to spend our entire time on guided tours. I’m glad we did; it was the easiest way to visit all the area’s main attractions. If we ever go back, I know we’ll visit the Golden Pavilion again as there was so much we didn’t get to see. And we’ll be able to explore the rest of Kyoto knowing that we don’t have to run around just to cram in the “most important” sites.

Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

Do you do enjoy organized tours when you travel or do you prefer to wing it on your own?

– by Dori Saltzman

plane taking off clock tickingThe perfect time to arrive at the airport, according to one mathematician, may be an unsettling one. Despite most airlines advising you to arrive at least three hours prior to international departure, Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison vies that the best time to arrive for your flight is as late as possible, and considers every hour spent waiting to board a plane as a “negative unit.”

According to the article in Huffington Post, Ellenberg considers optimizing your life by cutting it close to boarding time. “If we routinely arrive at airports three hours ahead of time, we’ll accrue hundreds of those lost hours over the course of our lives, and that’s not an efficient use of our time on earth.”

Ellenberg’s strategy puts forth only a one to two percent chance of missing your flight, but he doesn’t seem too concerned about the prospect, quoted as saying, “If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re not doing it right.”

10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security

Although Ellenberg’s theory seems to be about saving precious time, it gives me an anxiety attack just to imagine running late for a flight. I think the notion of saving time is a noble one, but let’s be honest: there are plenty of times in travel that we spend waiting — security checkpoints, hotel check-ins, you name it — but it’s worth it to ensure we have the best trip possible.

I don’t see how my life would be benefitted if I missed my flight — or needed an inhaler to catch one. Do you subscribe to Ellenberg’s time-saving maneuver? Tell us about your arrival-time preferences in the comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

cabo san lucasNot every destination makes a stellar first impression. Misunderstandings happen, plans fall through, expectations are dashed. And nowhere in recent memory did I find that truer than in Cabo San Lucas.

I had high hopes before I arrived in this happening resort town on the Mexican Riviera. As a celebrity magazine addict, I knew that Cabo was considered the perfect spot for A-listers to blow off steam: Justin Timberlake plays golf there, George Clooney celebrates birthdays, the Kardashians do what Kardashians do. Jennifer Aniston comes so often that she might as well be on the tourist brochure.

But I forgot that they don’t go where I went, which, unfortunately, was straight to Medano Beach. I knew from the moment I arrived at a popular beachfront restaurant there that I had chosen … poorly.

I ordered a margarita, singular. Little did I know this was an impossible request in Cabo. A waiter arrived bearing two aquarium-sized glasses. “No, no, just one,” I told him nicely.

“No, lady. Two is better!” he replied. We went back and forth over my request for a while, until he finally took the unsolicited beverage away. (At that point, I was so irritated by his persistent upselling that I almost needed the second drink.)

That wasn’t the end to the Medano madness. Within a few hours, I was hassled by timeshare salesmen, encouraged to smile by water taxi drivers and offered illegal drugs. I saw more ugly tattoos than on an episode of “Jersey Shore,” and it wasn’t even spring break. The last straw came when I slipped on one of Cabo’s steeper streets, landing firmly on my rear.

“I hate Cabo,” I texted to my husband.

Luckily, I had time for a do-over; subsequent days there exposed me to the city’s first-class adventure opportunities, including kayaking and snorkeling with Baja Outback, parasailing with Cabo Expeditions and a camel safari with Cabo Adventures (yes, camels! It’s become the company’s number one excursion). I even found some great places to go on Medano to escape the nuttiness free-for-all, including Nikki Beach (for those who like Miami style) and Tabasco Beach (for those who like feet-in-the-sand style). I have a list of things to do if and when I come back, including visits to San Jose del Cabo and Todos Santos and a deep-water fishing excursion.

Learn More About Mexico

But the experience made me think about the best ways to handle a new destination if it isn’t exactly what you expected:

Switch gears: The best thing I could have done after the margarita skirmish was hightail it out of Medano on a water taxi to the Marina, a less pushy part of the city. If you’re in a neighborhood that’s rubbing you the wrong way, try another one — stat.

Blow off steam: Zip-lining wasn’t what you expected? Don’t stomp back to the hotel angrily. If time allows, walk around, do some shopping or enjoy a snack at an establishment that looks more your speed. Being able to calm down and look at the situation with some distance will usually turn it into an amusing memory rather than a trip-wrecking horror.

Conduct a post-mortem, part I: That night, make the effort to talk to a few fellow travelers, either at your hotel or a local bar. What have they done that you haven’t? Swapping stories means you can unearth valuable intel that may allow you to make out better the next day.

Conduct a post-mortem, part II: Once you’re home, go online and see if others have had your experience. (Our forums are a great place to chat with other travelers.) Did they have the same issues you did, or did you just happen to catch that attraction or neighborhood on a bad day? Keep in mind that factors like weather, local strikes and staff turnover can vary the experience significantly.

When Destinations Disappoint

Maybe it’s you. We all have bad days. Maybe you’re not feeling well, or maybe your travel companions are working your last nerve. If you set out for the day with a monster chip on your shoulder, don’t be surprised if the slightest thing knocks it off — and really, who’s to blame for that but yourself?

Tell us! How have you salvaged a poor experience in a new destination?

– written by Chris Gray Faust

living roomIt’s easy to see a broken bone, but it’s harder to prove you’re feeling too distraught to travel. So if you or a loved one has ever struggled with mental illness, don’t count on travel insurance being there to reimburse you if your condition adversely affects your trip.

Two recent articles by NPR and Consumerist offer a cautionary tale about a couple who was refused coverage for a canceled trip due to their son’s mental health emergency (after a medication change, his doctor suggested that he not be left alone). Despite a letter of support from the psychiatrist, the couple was denied their $1,800 claim.

Travel Insurance: What You Need to Know

Travel insurance is not included under the Mental Health Parity Act and Affordable Care Act, which now mandates that health plans must cover preventive services like depression screening for adults and behavioral assessments for children at no cost, and that most plans won’t be able to deny coverage or charge more due to pre-existing health conditions, including mental illnesses. In fact, on the CDC’s website it says to be aware of “exclusions regarding psychiatric emergencies or injuries related to terrorist attacks or acts of war” when purchasing travel insurance. That means that unless your ailment is physical in nature, don’t expect anything in return for your turmoil from travel insurance.

According to NPR, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has received about 10 complaints about travel insurance discrimination over the past year. Travel insurance is state-regulated, so policies, fine print and subtleties will vary across the U.S. Some states flat-out do not offer mental health coverage or consider it a pre-existing condition. Options at this time seem limited for anyone who struggles with bouts of anxiety, depression or even loved ones who may require additional care.

To me, the stigma attached to mental illness reflects an outdated taboo about real disorders and serious conditions that affect one in four adults in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In my opinion it is discrimination, and coverage should extend to families who cope with mental health issues as much as it extends to physical ailments. Everyone deserves to travel and not worry about the consequences if they can’t.

Safety and Health Tips for Travelers

What are your thoughts about travel insurance coverage for mental illness? Have you experienced a similar issue with coverage?

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

As a traveler, is there any better feeling than finally crossing a trip off your bucket list? I did it myself last week with an expedition cruise to the Galapagos Islands aboard the 32-passenger Evolution; the trip was run by International Expeditions, which offers nature-based trips around the globe.

After so many years of building up expectations in my head about this trip, I can confirm a few things: the wildlife was just as exotic and unafraid of humans as I’d been told (swimming with sea lions is a memory I’ll never forget), and all those light-colored, quick-drying clothes I was advised to pack were definitely useful under the harsh equatorial sun. But as with any trip, there were a few lessons I could only learn through experience.

galapagos tortoise


1. Bring an umbrella (and not just for rain).
Are you sensitive to the sun? Bring your own beach umbrella! I’d initially packed an umbrella in case of rain in Guayaquil (where I spent a few nights before and after the cruise), but I ended up using it to provide shade during a few ultra-sunny beach days. It can also be useful for hikes, as trees can be scarce on the more arid islands.

2. Always keep your camera with you, even at meal times.
You never know when a pod of dolphins or a magnificent frigate bird will cruise by the bow of the ship, and you might miss a sweet photo op if you have to run back to your cabin to grab your camera.

3. Arrive at least a day early.
This advice applies to anyone boarding a cruise ship or joining an organized tour, but it’s particularly important in the Galapagos, where flights are limited and not all islands have airports. One family on our sailing arrived a couple of hours too late to catch our flight from Guayaquil to the islands, and ended up missing two full days of our weeklong itinerary.

How to Pack for a Galapagos Cruise

4. Pack properly for snorkeling.
While your ship may provide wetsuits for snorkeling, consider packing a dive skin to wear under it both for warmth (especially between June and November when the water is colder) and for sun protection. Also, don’t forget your head! One fellow passenger, whose hair was thinning a bit, said that he wished he’d brought a swim cap to protect his scalp from the sun. Finally, consider bringing some alcohol-based drops to help dry your ears after snorkeling; this can help prevent swimmer’s ear and other infections.

galapagos sea turtle


5. Consider altitude sickness when planning your route.
The two gateway cities for flights to the Galapagos are Quito and Guayaquil, and they each have their pros and cons. While many travelers consider Quito to be the more interesting city, keep in mind that it’s located at an altitude of more than 9,000 feet, while Guayaquil is at sea level. Not everyone suffers from altitude sickness, but it can be debilitating — something to consider if you’re only going to be in town for a day or two.

6. Put the camera away.
When you’re standing incredibly close to an animal, it’s tempting to keep click-click-clicking away with your camera. But at one point, when I found myself watching a pair of albatrosses courting each other through the lens instead of with my own two eyes, I decided it was time to drop the camera and simply drink in the experience for a few moments — because who knows when I’d ever have this chance again?

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

– written by Sarah Schlichter