I’m always on the prowl for the best items to pack in the carry-on bag that stays under the seat in front of me during a long-haul flight. The coziest socks, the perfect snacks, the best neck pillow, the yoga pants with the most comfortable waistband, the best-tasting toothpaste in the smallest tube. It’s a bit of an obsession of mine — and one day in the hopefully-not-too-distant future, I will master my quest.
If you too are always seeking out new ideas of what to pack in your carry-on for a lengthy flight, these recent articles may also provide you with inspiration:
The Complete Guide to Faking Your Own Business-Class Upgrade: Just because you’re flying economy, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a first-class experience, writes Dan Frommer at Quartz. One of his genius tips: Bring a Thermos with you to the airport. Once you’ve cleared security, go to McDonald’s or another restaurant, and have an ice cream sundae made in the container. It’ll stay cold enough for you to enjoy after your in-flight dinner. He also packs hot sauce and noise-canceling headphones, and prepays for in-flight Internet access through Gogo to save money.
A Must-Have Travel Kit for Your Coziest Flight Ever: Why have I never thought to bring my own teabags on a flight? Zoe Eisenberg of Care2 recognizes that in-flight tea options are “bleak.” She also suggests bringing a scarf; according to Ayurvedic medicine, wearing a scarf can bolster your immune system by offering extra warmth around the neck — vital when you’re surrounded by sneezy travelers. (See also our tips for Avoiding the Airplane Cold.)
10 Smart Things to Pack in Your Carry-On: Most of the tips in this article from Mental Floss are pretty basic, but a few are items the typical traveler may not consider. One of my favorites: a collapsible water bottle that takes up little room in your bag.
For more on in-flight comfort, check out 9 Must-Dos Before a Long-Haul Flight and 10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight.
What do you always bring on a long flight?
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
I recently stumbled across a website that lets you create a customized map highlighting all the countries you’ve visited. (You can try it yourself at Traveltip.org.) While I initially considered it merely a fun exercise, I found myself hesitating as I checked off a few of the options — could I really count Denmark if I’d only spent an overnight there between flights and didn’t actually get to see anything besides my hotel? (My answer: Nope.) But I did count Guatemala, which I visited on a day trip from Belize.
Everyone draws the line differently when deciding which countries to count — or not to count — on their own personal lists. In The Politics of Country Counting, Sam Wright Fairbanks of Map Happy offers several different criteria you might use, such as spending at least 24 hours, getting through customs or traveling to more than one city within the country.
And then, of course, there are places that may not technically be countries, such as Taiwan or Greenland — do you count those? What about Scotland vs. England vs. Northern Ireland, all part of the United Kingdom but different in culture and history? Map Happy points to a couple of travel clubs that address this by splitting the world into not only internationally recognized countries but also smaller geographical territories and areas. These include the Travelers’ Century Club — which considers places like Alaska, Hawaii, Prince Edward Island and the Isle of Man to be separate from their parent countries — and Most Traveled People, which slices the world into a whopping 875 regions you can visit. (You must become a member of the club to see the region list.)
No matter which standard you use, counting countries is a fun exercise, though I sometimes have to remind myself not to take it too seriously. While shooting for your 10th or 50th or 100th country can inspire you to plan new adventures, the world isn’t a checklist — and just because you’ve visited a particular country, it doesn’t mean that you’ve “done” that place in the sense that you’ve experienced everything it has to offer.
Of course, none of that will stop me from trying to fill in a few more spots on that Travelertip map.
Photos: 9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should
Bucket List Travel
How do you determine whether you’ve visited a country?
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Photos are the best souvenir you can bring home from a trip, in my opinion. There are countless resources online to help you take better travel photos, including some excellent articles on our website. (Shameless plug for my favorites: 19 Tips for Better Travel Photos and 12 Things You Don’t Photograph — But Should.)
Here are five new photography resources online:
Beyond the Selfie Stick: A New Angle on Travel Photography: If you’re tired of taking selfies, you can now hire a professional photographer to accompany you on vacation and take magazine-like photos of you. Skift reports on two such companies: Flytographer, which connects travelers with local photographers in 160 cities, and El Camino, a tour company that includes the services of a pro photographer in your vacation package. (Check out our post about Flytographer.)
How to Hashtag Your Photos on Instagram: Want to maximize the number of people who see your travel photography on Instagram? Make sure you’re using the right hashtags, advises Stephanie Rosenbloom of the New York Times. For example, if you photograph a gorgeous tree, don’t just mark your photo #tree; use #treelovers.
Wanderlust Photo of the Year Competition: Looking at professional photographers’ images can be intimidating — but seeing the winning shots from Wanderlust travel magazine’s 2016 amateur photo contest invokes pride. Among the top shooters in the wildlife, landscape, people and icon categories are a police officer, an accountant, a schoolteacher and a minster.
The Natural Photographer: This new site from photographer and nature tour guide Court Whelan of the adventure travel company Natural Habitat Adventures focuses on capturing images of animals and nature. Whelan knows the types of shots travelers like to get — close-ups of cool critters, silhouettes against sunsets, wide-angle landscapes that make your Facebook friends jealous. The site also includes basics on using camera settings, composing shots and choosing equipment.
Getting Started in Travel Photography: The website PetaPixel published this great primer last week by photographer Viktor Elizarov, who gives solid advice on starting out small and growing your skills. You don’t need to book a pricey trip to Southeast Asia to find great subjects for your first foray in travel photography, he advises. You can start in your own neighborhood.
12 Travel Photography Mistakes to Avoid
How to Back Up Photos When You Travel
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
“Wow, none of this looks familiar at all,” I told my travel companion as we walked through downtown Oslo, Norway, on a recent trip. “I have no idea if I was ever in this neighborhood. No, wait — I think I remember that fountain!”
It had been 12 years since my first and only time in Oslo, a quick two-day stay in the midst of a longer European trip. My memories of the place had come down to a few hazy impressions — the striking cleanliness of the city, a few statues in Vigeland Park, the facade of the Royal Palace on a gray day. But when I returned to Oslo after so long away, I was surprised by how much it felt like I was visiting for the first time.
The same happened on a different trip to Barcelona, also after a dozen-year gap. Yes, the famous Gothic cathedral looked familiar, as did the bustling Rambla promenade, but it was the places between major landmarks that seemed to have slipped away over the years — the shops and squares and side streets, the connecting fabric of the city, the bits that fill the gaps between the highlights that we usually remember from a trip.
As I wandered like a wide-eyed newcomer around Barcelona, I thought back to a conversation I once had with a friend about how little we remember about the books we’ve read. “Have I even really read the book if I can only remember one good line or an important plot point?” she asked me. “What if all I can recall is that I liked a book, even if I don’t know why anymore?”
I discovered this year that the same goes for travel. Unless you visit a place regularly — the way you might reread a favorite book — only your most powerful memories of it seem to stand the test of time. Psychologist Daniel L. Schacter labeled this transience one of the “deadly sins of memory,” according to the PsyBlog.
So why do we spend thousands of dollars to travel when all that remains of a trip a few years later will be some pretty photos and a misty impression of a place (“So beautiful” or “Ugh, I got violently ill there!”)?
To me, the answer is that the memories I do retain from my travels are some of my most visceral and personal — my first sight of the Duomo in Florence (which literally took my breath away), the warm smile from a woman in Greenland in response to my halting attempt to say “thank you” in her language, the rosy color of the Moroccan sand dunes at sunrise. I don’t believe my most important travel memories will ever fade.
As for the rest, in many ways traveling is about living richly in the moment. Even if some of those moments may someday slip away, maybe it’s enough that we lived them at all.
Return Trips: Why the Second Time’s a Charm
Sharing Your Travel Photos and Experiences
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Travelers looking to explore the Yangtze River in China or the Danube in Europe may have already heard of Viking River Cruises, which offers dozens of boats plying various rivers around the globe. But the company has recently expanded to include larger ocean-going cruise ships, with the first one launching earlier this year.
Viking Star is the first of three identical, 930-passenger ships; the other two, Viking Sea and Viking Sky, will debut within the next two years. I recently sailed aboard Viking Star from Barcelona to Rome to see how well the experience might suit independent travelers. Read on to learn what I loved about the cruise — as well as a few drawbacks.
1. Unique Itineraries
Viking Star sails all over Europe as well as to the Caribbean and the East Coast of the U.S., and it’s hard not to be enticed by some of the less-traveled ports the ship visits. The 14-night Ancient Empires & Holy Lands sailing, for instance, starts in Rome and includes calls in Israel (Haifa and Jerusalem) and Turkey (Ephesus and Istanbul) as well as Naples and Athens. Or head north to follow “In the Wake of the Vikings,” a journey that starts in Bergen, Norway, and passes through Scotland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland en route to Montreal. The Caribbean itineraries start in Puerto Rico instead of Florida, minimizing days at sea and allowing passengers to explore islands like Tortola, Guadeloupe and Antigua.
2. (Almost) Everything Is Included
On most mainstream cruise lines you’ll pay extra for things like onboard Wi-Fi, dinner in an alternative restaurant, and beer/wine with meals — all of which are included on Viking Star. There’s always one free shore excursion in each port as well (typically an introductory bus or walking tour). Another nice perk? All cabins have balconies.
Note that a few things do cost extra, including spa treatments, gratuities for the crew, some shore excursions, and premium cocktails, wines and spirits.
3. Tasteful Ambience
If your vision of cruise ships includes cheesy, over-the-top decor and crowded buffets, rest assured; as befits its Scandinavian sensibility, Viking Star feels elegant and understated. My favorite spots included the quiet Explorers’ Lounge, where you can curl up on a couch with a book from the well-stocked bookshelves, and the Nordic spa, where you can cool off in a Snow Grotto between trips to the sauna or hot tub.
4. Longer Days in Port
On my Mediterranean sailing, Viking Star overnighted in two different ports (Rome and Barcelona), and stayed late in most others; passengers didn’t have to be back onboard until 8 to 10 p.m. — unusually late for the cruise industry. That meant we had at least 12 hours to explore each day, giving us the option to take multiple excursions or to eat both lunch and dinner ashore if we wanted to experience the local cuisine.
5. Enrichment and Immersion
Daily lectures (such as “The Restoration of the Sistine Chapel: What Went Wrong and Why?”) and informational port talks help passengers get to know each destination before visiting, and many of the shore excursions go beyond the usual major sightseeing attractions. For example, one offering in Rome takes travelers to the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, which predates the rise of the Roman Empire. During a call in Livorno, Italy, you can take a cooking class in a medieval Tuscan castle or meet working artisans in Florence. Viking also offers a Kitchen Table experience that involves shopping with the ship’s chef at a market in port and then working with him to prepare local specialties (such as Spanish tapas).
Despite all of these benefits, there are a few important caveats to note about sailing with Viking Ocean Cruises. Most importantly, despite the overnights and longer days in port, these itineraries have the same major drawback as any other cruise, particularly in Europe: not enough time. Spending a single day in a city like Florence or Jerusalem will give you no more than a taste — especially in places where the port is a one- or two-hour bus ride from the city you actually intend to see. To avoid frustration, consider your cruise a sampler that will help you figure out which cities are worth a longer visit in the future.
Also, while the included shore excursions are a nice perk, independent travelers who chafe at the thought of shuffling along with 35 other tourists behind a guide holding up a Viking sign should book their own private tour (for a more personalized experience) or simply go it alone.
Cruises start at about $2,000 per person (not including airfare). Learn more at VikingCruises.com.
Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Editor’s Note: I traveled as a guest of Viking Ocean Cruises, with the understanding that I would cover the trip in a way that honestly reflected my experience — good, bad or indifferent. Along with the cruise itself, Viking also included some complimentary extras to allow me to experience various aspects of its onboard experience. You can read our full editorial disclosure on our About Us page.
Raise your hand if you’ve scrambled at the last minute to fill a Christmas stocking. We’re all usually focused on bigger gifts, leaving stockings to get stuffed from the mishmash of small, nominally priced items in the checkout aisle of a big-box retailer.
This Christmas, I’ll be filling stockings with as much care as I hang them. Here are indulgent and practical items under $20 that your travel-happy loved ones will appreciate (listed in order from least to most expensive):
Mini-funnels: How many times have you tried to fill those travel-sized bottles, only to end up with shampoo oozing down the side? These little funnels prevent gooey messes. Price: $1.29 for three
Bottle-top humidifier: This is ideal for frequent hotel guests who find their rooms too dry. You simply screw the device onto a bottle of water and plug in using the included USB cord. Price: $5.61
Soft-sided bottle: Airports’ filtered water fountains and bottle refill stations are handy, but hard-sided plastic or aluminum water bottles don’t often fit well in the seatback pocket on an airplane. A soft-sided, pouch-like water bottle is a great solution. This one holds 34 ounces. Price: from $6.93
Waterproof labels for toiletries: I’ve used masking tape and Sharpies to make labels for my toiletries for years, but they look low-brow and don’t last very long. These vinyl, waterproof, reusable labels from the Etsy shop ElvaandJune are much prettier, with custom shapes and printed patterns. Price: $8.91
RFID-blocking passport wallet: Savvy hackers employ wireless devices to steal your identity by reading the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) info on your credit card and passport. Thwart their attempts by using a wallet that cannot be penetrated by wireless signals. This wallet stows cash, credit cards and a passport. Price: $9.99
Lavender chamomile pillow mist: I use linen sprays like these to freshen up stale-smelling sheets, spritz worn clothing and help immortalize the memory of a trip, as I wrote about in September. This particular scent isn’t overpowering and could appeal to men and women. Price: $10
Luxury-brand toiletries: Most of us either refill bottles with the shampoo and lotion brands we have at home or buy whatever’s cheapest at the local pharmacy. Why not indulge your loved one with a luxury brand, such as Bvlgari or Kiehl’s? Price: from $10
Portable battery charger: Before you purchase a portable battery charger as a gift, make sure you know what brand of smartphone your loved one owns. This sleek, eight-ounce model works on iPhones, Androids, BlackBerries and other devices. Price: $11.45
Sleep mask: Not only does this mask do superb work blocking out light, but it also contours around your eyes — you can actually still blink when it’s on — and it doesn’t slip down your nose. Comes with free earplugs. Price: $12.80
Gadget organizer: This is the perfect companion for a long-haul flight: a nylon pouch with tons of tight elastic loops, pockets and pouches to keep all your little items organized. You’ll never have to root around on the floor for your lost pen or lip balm again. Price: $15.19
Neck rest: Unlike a standard neck pillow, the Releaf Neck Rest prevents you from becoming a sound-asleep bobblehead, because it supports all of your neck, not just the back and sides. Price: $19.99
For more ideas, check out 10 Unexpected Holiday Travel Gifts.
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Several weeks have passed since Leigh Smythe Merino hastily departed Paris following the terrorist attacks last month. The Alexandria, Virginia, resident had arrived for her first-ever visit to the French capital the morning of the mass assaults on November 13.
“I felt so many emotions at once,” Merino, 42, said in an interview this week. “I was so profoundly sad about the people who had died. I was scared for the people of Paris. I was anxious. I was conflicted about staying or going.”
She was staying at a friend’s apartment a short walk from the cafe where 19 people were killed and nine were injured. After several texts and a few phone calls with her husband back home in the States, Merino decided to leave Paris the next morning.
Now that some time has passed, Merino has had a chance to reflect on that day. She never before considered what to do in the event of an emergency departure from a city, but she feels better prepared now.
“I do not want to diminish the horror of the events of that day. But I hope my experience could help other people think on their feet and act quickly,” she said.
If you find yourself in a similar high-risk scenario — one that the U.S State Department has alerting us to in its latest travel warning — Merino offers the following advice:
Contact your airline as soon as possible to rebook your flight. Airlines will be aware of the situation and often will rebook you for free and with no questions asked. Merino was wise to email her husband back in Virginia and have him call United Airlines to schedule a new flight. Given the number of other fliers trying to rebook, Merino would have had a difficult time trying to get through to an agent in France. “My husband got through right away to a U.S.-based agent, and he easily got me on a new flight,” she said. “It took only minutes.”
Keep your wits about you. Merino admitted she wasn’t thinking as clearly as normal. But she took a deep breath and took a moment to prioritize what was most important: making sure her wallet and passport were handy yet secure. To locate her emergency credit card, in case she needed it. To keep her cell phone charged. To make sure her Uber app was working to get a ride to the airport the next morning.
Try to get rest. It was impossible to sleep that night, Merino said. Sirens sounded all night. She and her friend stayed glued to the news. A thousand thoughts kept her awake. “There was no way I would have been able to fall asleep,” she said. “But I expected the next day to be tough and I tried to rest as much as I could.” Same goes for eating well, staying hydrated and otherwise taking good care of yourself.
Go to the airport far, far earlier than usual. Merino had an 11:55 a.m. flight. Anticipating large crowds and heightened security, she arrived at the airport four hours before her flight. As it turned out, the airport was packed, and security lines were chaotic and slow-moving. (In fact, her flight departed 90 minutes late because so many passengers were still in security lines.)
Muster the most patience you’ve ever had. The experience at Charles de Gaulle was frustrating to say the least, Merino said. There were few staff controlling extra-large crowds, and only a handful of officers were working that Saturday morning at passport control. Lines became masses, and people became unruly. “I kept reminding myself to keep perspective,” she said. “People were going through far, far worse in Paris. I could handle this.”
Register your trip with your government. In advance of overseas travel, Merino said she’ll now register her trip with the U.S. State Department. Doing so can give you access to information from the local embassy as well as help friends and family at home contact you in an emergency. (U.S. citizens can register themselves here; other countries have similar programs.)
Obtain international cell service. Merino also said she will contact her cell phone service provider to make sure that her phone has temporary international service; she recommends the same for all travelers who can’t currently use her phone abroad as part of their current plans.
Travel Warnings and Advisories
Travel Safety and Health Tips
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Ben Schlappig is a master of the miles.
Since giving up his apartment in April 2014 to spend all of his time traveling, Schlappig now flies around 400,000 miles a year, nearly all of it in first or business class. If that weren’t amazing enough, he only pays for a small fraction of his flights out of pocket. Instead, he relies on airline miles and credit card points.
How does Schlappig — a 25-year-old travel consultant and blogger who runs the website One Mile at a Time — do it? And can ordinary people like us capitalize on credit card points and miles, even if we can’t make such a task our full-time jobs?
We caught up with Schlappig via email while he was in flight between London and Los Angeles to ask.
IndependentTraveler.com: Must you be a frequent traveler to be able to take advantage of mileage or points programs?
Ben Schlappig: Absolutely not! In the U.S. nowadays, more than half of miles are issued through non-flying means. Mileage programs have really gone from “frequent flier programs” to “frequent buyer programs,” as the possibilities for earnings miles are endless. You can earn miles through credit card spending, online shopping portals, car rentals and more.
IT: Is it better to spend credit card points on free airfare or free hotel stays?
BS: The loyalty program landscape for both airlines and hotels has changed considerably, especially over the past couple of years. Ultimately there are pros and cons to both airline and hotel credit cards. Which type of card makes more sense for you depends on what you value most out of your travels.
What I recommend doing is accruing points in a “transferrable” points currency (such as American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou and Starwood Preferred Guest), which allows you to transfer points to either airline or hotel transfer partners. This way you have a lot more flexibility with your points.
IT: Most people hoard their points, saving them up for a special occasion. Why is that a bad strategy?
BS: I have an “earn and burn” philosophy towards miles. That’s because miles devalue over time, as the number of miles needed for a given ticket creeps up. “Saving” miles long-term would be the equivalent of keeping cash in a checking account not accruing interest for decades on end. The best thing you can redeem your miles for is memorable travel experiences, and you’re generally best off doing that sooner rather than later.
Frequent Flier Miles: How to Use ‘Em, Not Lose ‘Em
IT: Do you tend to use airline miles more for free tickets or for upgrades?
BS: In general I try to redeem my miles for award tickets in international first and business class. These are the awards that tend to have the most value to me, given that the tickets would be disproportionately expensive if paying cash.
For example, if you’re redeeming American miles for travel to Asia, a business-class ticket costs less than two times as much as an economy ticket. However, if you were to pay cash, that ticket could cost five to 10 times as much.
IT: How much you’ve spent on travel in a year? And what’s the estimated the value of your free travel?
BS: Over half of my travel has been using miles and points. Given that many international first-class tickets retail for $25,000 or more roundtrip, I’d estimate the travel I’ve taken this year has probably retailed for somewhere around a million dollars. I spend a tiny, tiny fraction of that.
IT: What were some of your favorite destinations you’ve visited in 2015?
BS: This has been a great year for travel for me, and I have a hard time picking just a few. I’d say Egypt, the Maldives and Austria rank up there.
IT: Where haven’t you been yet that you really want to visit?
BS: I have a bit of an island obsession at the moment, as it’s not something I’ve focused much on previously. I’d love to visit Fiji, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Tahiti.
IT: The wanderlusters among us have been salivating recently at the exploits of frequent traveler Sam Huang, who scored a five-continent, first-class trip on Emirates Airlines for very little money by finding a (now-closed) loophole. Were you as jealous as we were?
BS: Every couple of months there seems to be a story that goes viral about someone redeeming miles for an incredible international first-class experience. Rather than the loophole as such, what I ultimately take away from these situations is that the general public really has no sense of how easy it can be to redeem miles for some amazing products. Most people never get to experience these products because they assume they could never afford them. But with miles it’s much more feasible than they think.
7 Mistakes to Avoid When Booking a Flight
— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Having taken three weekend road trips in a row, it’s no wonder my back has been tied up in knots. And an autumn cold came on during this last trip, giving me lots more downtime at a West Virginia Airbnb cabin during the height of fall foliage season than I wanted.
I take good care of myself at home, but traveling requires a different set of healthy habits — ones I need to pay more attention to, even during long weekend getaways and small trips. Here are the articles I’ll turn to next time, and the best tips, from head to toe:
Avoiding Airplane Colds: We’re constantly lectured to stay hydrated on airplanes but rarely told why. It’s because humidity is lower at higher altitudes. This dries out the throat and nasal passages, which are the first lines of defense in preventing colds, explains IndependentTraveler.com’s Ed Hewitt. Best tip: Sip water throughout a flight to stay hydrated and you’ll be better poised to prevent a head cold.
How to Travel with Neck Pain: Best tip: Pack disposable heat wraps, or bring an empty resealable bag on a plane and ask a flight attendant for ice.
8 Expert Tips to Prevent Backache: If you must lift a heavy bag into an overhead bin, first lift it to seat level, then lift it to the bin. Don’t lift it from floor to bin in one fell swoop.
Preventing Traveler’s Diarrhea: Don’t be embarrassed — we’ve all been there. You probably know to tote hand sanitizer, but another good tip is to pack your own bar of soap and keep it in your daypack. Then you can use it at restrooms where soap isn’t provided. (For more advice, see our own guide to warding off traveler’s tummy.)
6 Tips for Traveling with Knee Pain: It’s all about the aisle seat.
Shoe and Foot Care During Travel: I tend to travel with two pairs of shoes — one set of walking shoes and the other a nicer set of flats for the evening. But based on advice from experts, I’ll be switching over to two pairs of super-comfy kicks and alternating them by day. Best tip: Clean your shoes frequently. Clean shoes breathe better.
18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
We’re already used to destroying bank statements, tax forms and other sensitive documents when we need to get rid of them; now it turns out you should add your used airline boarding passes to that list.
KrebsOnSecurity, a computer security blog, recently reported that the bar and QR codes on your boarding pass can easily be decoded, revealing not only your name and itinerary but also your frequent flier number and any other information associated with it (such as your phone number or future flight bookings).
The blog points to this website as a free online resource for reading bar codes. Anyone who finds your boarding pass could snap an image of it, upload it to the site and access your information. He or she could theoretically make changes to your frequent flier account and even cancel your future flights.
How likely is this to happen if you accidentally drop your boarding pass into a recycling bin? It’s hard to say — but I’m not taking any chances. I’ll be shredding my boarding passes from now on. Will you?
11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling
— written by Sarah Schlichter