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a woman on a train looking out the windowI 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.

European Train Tips

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.

The World’s Most Spectacular Train Trips

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

hand with fingers close up putting a pin into a mapI 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.

Tourist No More: Three Secrets for Traveling like a Local

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.

The Lure of Local Travel

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

ballard seattleOn 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.

Vacation Rentals: A Traveler’s Guide

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.

Big-City B&Bs

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

eyjafjallajokull volcano icelandIn 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.

Reykjavik Travel Guide

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.

5 Ways to Beat Pre-Trip Panic

– written by Sarah Schlichter

mottarone italyI’ve made plenty of mistakes while traveling. I’ve forgotten everything from a computer charger to a camera, and I’ve scheduled flights so close together that more than once I’ve pulled what I call “the ‘Home Alone’ run,” in which I scurry through the airport like the McCallisters, just barely making it to the gate before it closes.

On a recent trip to Italy, I made one of my biggest mistakes yet — but it led to one of my fondest travel memories to date.

During a trip to Lake Maggiore, a newfound friend and I decided to take a cable car to the top of Mottarone, a mountain that overlooks the lake and the town of Stresa. The experience had been recommended to us by a few locals, though one woman warned us not to miss the last ride down the mountain.

11 Best Italy Experiences

Once there, we were rewarded with hiking trails and spectacular views (we could see seven different lakes and even a bit of Switzerland in the distance). We enjoyed ourselves so much that time flew quickly, and guess what? We missed the last ride down.

After we got past the initial “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” we found our way to the nearest business — actually, the only business; the restaurant was the only sign of civilization nearby. The owner, who barely spoke English, made a quick call, then told us it would be an hour before we could even get a taxi; after that, it would be at least a 45-minute drive and 60 euros back to our hotel. We were supposed to meet a group of friends for our last dinner together in Italy in an hour. We’d never make it.

“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”

My friend ordered a beer and started chatting with the owner. Still in a state of panic, I grabbed a beer too, and, at her order, sat down to “try to relax.”

The owner kindly offered us plates of meat, cheese and bread on the house, and began to tell us about himself. It turned out he was the former mayor of Stresa, and he planned to run for office again. The restaurant he owned dated back several generations, and his mother, who also spoke to us, still cooked up some of the area’s best dishes (“People like the meatballs,” she said). The family also owned a hotel (adjacent to the restaurant) that was popular during ski season.

Caught up in conversation, it was actually disappointing to leave when the taxi driver finally arrived. As he whisked the car down hairpin turns, my friend and I agreed: this unexpected conversation with the locals was travel at its best, and an experience neither of us would forget.

15 Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling Solo

What’s the best travel mistake you ever made?

– written by Amanda Geronikos



“To the few who have traveled;

To the many who would like to go abroad,
But are restrained by timidity;

To the lacking in funds;

To the sick and convalescent who promise themselves
Sight of the world when health will permit;

More especially, to the multitude of unfortunates, who on account of incurable ailments of
Whatever kind, can never hope to escape the narrow confines in which their lots are cast,

I venture to address this introduction.”

— Lew Wallace

And so begins “Scenes from Every Land: Over Five Hundred Photographic Views. Designed to Take the Place of an Extended Tour of the World” by Thomas Lowell and Ed Knox, published in 1892 with an introduction by General Lew Wallace.

scenes from every land


I found it among a dusty pile of long-forgotten titles on the floor of Dooryard Books, a quaint treasure trove of the old and rare, in Rockland, Maine. I had been in search of vintage copies of Jules Verne novels but quickly swapped sea creatures and the center of the earth for a more personal world. The writing was so honest, so selfless and stirring that with the book in my hands I scanned the empty store, wishing to find someone I could share it with.

“Hey, this is the best book dedication ever! This is what it’s all about!”

But there was no one. Just the old man in the front, sitting at his desk and slowly turning the page of the book he was reading. If Maine had tumbleweeds, one would have blown by outside at that very second.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say — my fellow travelers, writers, bloggers and photographers — that unbeknownst to General Lew Wallace in 1892, his dedication was also written for us.

How easy is it to forget the miracle of travel? Of flight or a road trip or a simple walk in the woods? How often do we let incredible scenes of the past cast a shadow over those of the present? How often do we think that if something isn’t perfect, it’s not good? This mentality is so natural and yet so destructive to our happiness on the road. It’s time we listen to Lew.

I promised myself that I would revisit the dedication before my next trip. I would remember it when I found myself complaining about flight delays, lackluster hotels, homesickness, rain or long-awaited destinations that don’t live up to their websites. And suddenly I felt thankful that I was even in Maine in the first place.

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

– written by Marc Cappelletti, a freelance writer and the Director of Expedition Development for Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic

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