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supermarket aislesWe all know you can learn a lot about a person from his work desk, her reading list or even their medicine cabinet. But can you apply similar rules to a country and its people?

Sure. Just check out the extensive frozen food aisles in most U.S. supermarkets, and you’ll quickly realize how much most Americans love to save time by relying on easy, convenient, premade food. So what can supermarkets tell you about people in other countries?

Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic and frequent contributor to IndependentTraveler.com, was surprised to learn that not all Italians spend hours making pasta by hand.

“The vast array of premade pasta at a Tuscany co-op certainly disabused us of the notion that all Italian hand-make theirs,” she wrote on IndependentTraveler.com’s Facebook page.

Eating Well and Staying Active While Traveling

I discovered that Romanians are not above making fun of their vampiric association when I found a potato chip dipping sauce called “Let’s Dip Dracula.”

When we asked our readers on Facebook what they’ve learned about a country on their foreign supermarket forays, people were quick to chime in.

Sheila of Sheila’s Travel Page had a similar epiphany to Brown’s. “I assumed that everywhere tropical used fresh squeezed juice, but in the grocery store there was a whole aisle of Tetra Pak juice. People living in the tropics don’t have time to squeeze juice, just like me!”

How to Save Money on Food When You Travel

And Tamara M. Goldstein wrote that visiting supermarkets abroad reminds her that most people in the world don’t have huge refrigerators. “In the USA we have so many sizes of one product; however, in most European countries there is one, maybe two sizes of a product,” she wrote. “They don’t have gigantic refrigerators like we have nor do they have walls filled with cupboards.”

Do you visit supermarkets in the countries you visit? What have you noticed?

– written by Dori Saltzman

suitcase boots Last Thursday I returned from my first trip to Alaska. Everything from the views to the food was fantastic. But part of what made my trip so enjoyable was that I was ready for just about anything, because I had read up on what I needed and had brought three specific must-pack items.

Layers: Having read many articles on how to prepare, I still struggled to find outfits that were suitable for both warm and cold weather without grossly overpacking. What I finally settled on were two pairs of jeans, several short- and long-sleeved shirts, a sweatshirt, a light jacket and a fleece jacket, with a pair of gloves and a headband to keep my ears warm. I kept an umbrella and poncho handy, too. “They” aren’t kidding when they say the weather can change at the drop of a hat. In Juneau, it was rainy and chilly, but not cold. In Skagway, it was cloudy and in the 40′s. In Ketchikan (which gets 13 feet of rain per year), it was sunny and in the 70′s.

Interactive Packing List

Proper Footwear: After my clothes, I tossed plenty of socks and three pairs of sturdy shoes into my suitcase, factoring in one pair for wet weather (waterproofed hiking boots), one pair for cold weather (sheepskin boots) and one pair for regular weather (sneakers or tennis shoes). Boy, were my feet happy.

How to Pack for a Galapagos Cruise

The Best Camera You Can Beg, Borrow or Buy: Sure, certain things in Alaska are overrated. (You can see similar mountains in several other places.) But you’ll want to snap some once-in-a-lifetime shots of what’s not so common elsewhere: grizzlies, dog-sled teams, Tlingit totems and, of course, glaciers, just to name a few. Most standard smartphones these days come with cameras that will do the trick just fine (and often better than any mainstream digital camera), so if you don’t own one, look into upgrading or borrowing one from a friend. You won’t regret it.

Best Local Spots to See Wildlife

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

seattle bus stationFor a few weeks now, I’ve spent nearly every evening knee-deep in plans for an upcoming trip to Seattle. I’ve booked a hotel, drooled over potential restaurant menus, and made a list of must-visit museums, bookstores and parks. But while my excitement is building, there’s one aspect of the trip that makes me a little nervous: riding public buses.

It’s an embarrassing admission to make, especially for someone who has traveled across four continents and writes about travel for a living. I am generally unfazed by airports and can handle the world’s subways and trains with aplomb, but city buses are somehow just … different. There’s no fixed endpoint or neatly labeled station to mark where I’m supposed to get off; instead I hover at the edge of my seat, watching the unfamiliar streets sliding by, glancing surreptitiously at my map to try to figure out where I am and when to signal the driver for my stop. No matter how many times I do it, I still get stressed out.

I usually find myself throwing myself on the mercy of the bus driver or a fellow passenger to help me get off at the right place. As an introvert, I’m intimidated by that too — especially overseas when there’s a language barrier in the mix! But luckily, it almost always works. Relying on the kindness of strangers, no matter how shy I am about doing it, has rarely led me astray in my travels.

In a very small way, riding public buses enables me to do something many of us want to do when we travel: step out of our comfort zone. Travel isn’t really travel to me without a little frisson of nerves mixed in with excitement and anticipation. After all, if we’re not stretching ourselves somehow, we may as well stay home.

Culture Shock: Outside the Comfort Zone

How do you step out of your own comfort zone when you travel?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

hudson valley autumn leaves windowIn 5 Signs You’re Not a True Traveler, I declared that you should travel to experience new things, and that you shouldn’t always take the same vacations again and again. While I stand behind the notion that resort vacations alone aren’t traveling in the truest sense of the word, everyone should have one of those special places that take us away but make us feel at home, all at once.

Call it a weekend getaway, or call it the Griswold Family Summer Vacation — a good ol’ stand-by vacation spot, by any other name, is just as sweet.

When I was a child, my parents would wake me up in the pitch-darkness before dawn to jump into the car (in full pajama regalia, clutching stuffed compatriots) and head to Montauk, Long Island. We did this every summer, which was a tradition that I later found out my father had started in his mid-20′s. With a sense of legacy, and miles of beaches, village shopping centers, farmer’s markets, winding roads and harborside restaurants, there wasn’t any element that “got old.”

Photos: The 8 Best U.S. Road Trips

In college I moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, and within a short time I was initiated into the cult of leaf-praising, harvest-loving, pumpkin latte-drinking and apple-picking worshippers of fall. The Hudson Valley came alive during the autumn months, and I was intoxicated by the bucolic rolling hills, small-town festivals and flavors that marked the season.

It’s because of four years spent roaming the grounds of the Vanderbilt Mansion and strolling the streets of Rhinebeck that I became a fan of New York’s Hudson Valley for life. In that time I learned important distinctions of the area — most notably, do not confuse Dutchess County for “upstate” … it’s not the same thing!

Vote: Do You Enjoy Revisiting Familiar Places?

Every October, like clockwork, some inner leaves rustle and I’m drawn back to the familiar world of my old stomping grounds. What some people remember most about their time away at college is the parties or the sorority pals. But for me, that period of my life offered a lifelong gift: the opportunity to know a place and to revisit it with new eyes every time the autumn wind blows and the Valley comes calling.

Where’s your home-away hideaway? Is there a place that you visit continually and couldn’t imagine never seeing again? Post yours in the comments.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

rollnbandsThe last time I packed for a long trip, size did matter. I had to stuff as much as I could into one suitcase. Thankfully, it was a big suitcase. But this was a 12-day cruise, and I had to pack for a variety of weather and occasions — including formal night. That meant I needed to have as much room as possible at the top of the suitcase so my dresses wouldn’t crease.

Enter these nifty elastic bands called rollnbands, which you can use to wrap rolled pieces of clothing together to make more room. They were very helpful for compressing my T-shirts, workout clothing and PJ’s into a small space, leaving more room to pile in my folded items. (For those more organized than me, you could also use the bands to roll each day’s outfits together, so that all you have to do is grab a bundle before getting dressed in the morning.)

Fearing wrinkles, I didn’t feel comfortable trying to wrap my “nicer” items with the bands. That didn’t matter though, as the extra space provided by the tightly packed rolled items was more than enough to put my folded pieces on top. The larger bands proved more useful than the small ones, as a large band could wrap three to four items and a small band only wrapped two.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

I didn’t find rollnbands to be as helpful to me as packing cubes, which are more appropriate for clothing that’s easily wrinkled. But they work great for packing mushable items into a tight space in order to make room for clothing that needs a bit more room.

A pack of rollnbands comes with five small and five large bands and retails for $19.95.

Want to try them for yourself? We’re giving away a few of our gently used rollnbands. To win, just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on August 15, 2013. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the rollnbands. 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. Reader Linda Conner has won the rollnbands. Stay tuned for further giveaways!

– written by Dori Saltzman

father and daughterNot everyone gets the chance to travel with a parent while both parties are pretty much in their prime. My father and I were lucky enough to have this opportunity on a recent 12-day Crystal cruise from New York City to Reykjavik, during which we shared a stateroom. We finished the cruise with a closer bond between us and a greater understanding of who the other is as an adult.

But we also discovered a lot about how — and how NOT — to travel as a parent/adult child combo.

Here are four lessons we learned during our 12 days:

1. Decide bathroom etiquette on day one. A frantic “no, no, no” from my dad at two in the morning when I almost walked in on him in the loo was the kick in the pants we needed to come up with a plan. It can be as simple as knocking on the door.

2. Pre-empt assumptions before they start. You may not mind if strangers assume the relationship between you and your parent or child is something else, but my father and I found it uncomfortable. We learned quickly to introduce ourselves as father and daughter to avoid any awkwardness.

18 Ways to Keep the Peace with Your Travel Companion

3. Keep your opinions to yourself. Though this works both ways, the lesson was most prominent for my dad. “Your daughter [or son] is an adult,” he says. “She doesn’t need or want you to treat her like a child or have you offer your opinion on most issues of daily living.” So if you think your child is eating something they shouldn’t or should be wearing a sweater because you’re cold, keep those thoughts to yourself.

4. Make time for yourselves. Traveling together for more than a day or two can feel like a lot, whether you’re sharing a room or not. To make sure you each get enough “me” time, do a few things separately. You don’t both have to do the same tour or go to the same museum. Spending half a day apart makes the coming back together again at dinner that much more fun as you share what you each did.

Poll: What does your travel companion do to annoy you?

– written by Dori Saltzman

sea turtle babyI love animals, and I love travel. Combine the two, and I’m all smiles. Whether it’s volunteer work, taking a tour or finding a new pet, there are lots of ways to involve yourself with different species while you travel close to home. Below is a list of five examples. Feel free to add your own in the comments, too.

Sea Turtle Release

This annual occurrence — generally late-June through mid-August — at Padre Island National Seashore in Corpus Christi, Texas, allows spectators to watch as groups of newly hatched baby sea turtles are gently nudged toward the sea by park officials. Anywhere from 15 to 25 releases per year are open to the public.

Manatee Observation

Florida is a great place to catch a glimpse of manatees in the wild. A perfect spot to see them is at Lee County Manatee Park in Fort Myers, Florida. Just remember: they’re wild animals, so don’t touch them as you enjoy the views of them swimming around in front of you.

Hermit Crab Adoption

If you’re in the market for a low-maintenance pet, stop by Jenkinson’s Pier in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, and purchase some hermit crabs. Be sure to buy at least two, as they’re social animals who thrive in groups. Keep in mind, though, that they aren’t throw-away pets, and they do require a small level of care.

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

Miniature Horse Rehabilitation

Volunteer at the Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue in Mandan, North Dakota, where abused and unwanted miniature horses are brought to live or be rehabilitated for adoption.

Cow-Milking on a Working Dairy Farm

Try your hand at milking a cow, and interact with goats at Hinchley’s Dairy Farm in Cambridge, Wisconsin, which offers tours three times a day from April through October.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

map pinsYou have the list — maybe in your head, maybe written down — of all the places you’ve traveled to. Maybe you even have a map marked off somewhere, with little pushpins or computerized dots peppering the globe. You fly frequently and far, your passport has more stamps than the post office, and your international snow globe collection is reaching insurable proportions. But what some globetrotters and island-hoppers don’t realize is that there are miles between the distances you traverse and the experiences that shape you as a global citizen. The following are five signs you may be traveling more like a pedometer than a cultural sponge.

You visit a new place just to check it off a list.
I am guilty of this, though to be fair, the itinerary was not my own. My trip of a lifetime onboard a world cruise with Semester at Sea was fantastically jam-packed with datelines and diversity, but overwhelming in the sheer number of countries and cultures I had to digest over a limited period of time. While I don’t regret the experience, I still feel like I would need to go back to many of the places we docked to say I truly know what it’s like to visit there. Traveling to new places is an opportunity to immerse. This isn’t the Travel Channel; don’t get to know a place for an hour and then reach for the remote. Once you step foot on the soil of a new frontier, many would say it’s fair game to cross it off the omnipresent list. What would be better is to have a story to tell about that time you stopped in a local Tuscan market to buy groceries for a picnic lunch, but didn’t speak a lick of Italian, so you asked for Saltines, got sardines, but struck up a conversation with someone else in line and now they visit you every summer. Okay, sort of a romanticized version of experiential travel, but better than just getting back on the tour bus.

You never stray from familiar destinations.
You vacation two, three times a year, but it’s always to that resort you like in Mexico, where, like a Telemundo version of “Cheers,” everyone knows your name in a Spanish accent. While favorite locales are a good standby for getaways in a pinch, you can’t rack up too much travel cred if your only world view extends just south of the border … or along the same chain of islands. Travel should stretch the coordinates of comfort, and leave you exposed and vulnerable — but in that “It’s Christmas morning and I don’t know what is under the tree yet” sort of way. Venturing into the relative unknown is a spectacular way to accumulate those once-in-a-lifetime moments that can only be seized when you’re not seeking them. I would never have seen the sunrise on the beaches of India or ridden on the back of a moped in Vietnam if I didn’t throw a little caution to the wind and let curiosity outweigh fear.

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

You expect the comforts of home … abroad.
While the “Americanization” of many cultures has led to expectations of Coca-Cola, Big Macs and a side of English in any corner of the world (and many times you will find them, believe me), creature comforts and familiarity should come as a surprise in a foreign land, not as an assumption. I can always forgive first-time travelers for some misgivings about varying international standards in sanitation, service and local cuisine. But if you’re asking for an exotic adventure to the Far East, don’t act blindsided when — gasp — people actually do eat all the things you’ve heard rumors about and, well, it’s not weird to them. Apart from culinary delicacies, many cultures don’t even partake in meals until what most Americans could consider bedtime. Harsh though it may seem, my best advice for anyone looking for all the conveniences or hair gels of home while traveling abroad is: Stay home.

You view your adventure from a bubble.
Most of your panoramas include a snoozing elderly man — not because he’s asleep on a stoop in a charming old Mediterranean village, but because most of your sightseeing has been through a tour bus window and he is sitting two rows in front. Don’t get me wrong — organized tours can be a great way to gain access to sites and information that would be difficult to arrange on your own. However, if the only people you speak to during your trip are your guide and your buddies on the bus, you’re missing out on a key aspect of the travel experience: the locals. More and more tour companies are infusing local interactions into their activities, including village visits and even meals in local homes. Or you can go off wandering on your own — befriend a shop owner or a student who speaks English if you’re a bit lost in translation. My best experiences abroad continue to be those made possible by the people indigenous to that area.

You refuse to change.
If you drink to have a good time, try a traditional caipirinha in Brazil, but don’t get so drunk that you forget what beach the bartender recommended. If you like to stay connected, create an Instagram or Vine of the Angkor Wat temple, but don’t stay so locked to a screen that you forget to look around and miss that awesome Cambodian monkey stealing a camera. Researchers say that the best time to quit smoking is while you’re on vacation because your habits and routine change so drastically that you’re essentially distracted. Embrace a change of pace during travel. Some are forced upon you — jet lag and time zone changes are unavoidable — but the “When in Rome” mentality is not for naught when traveling. New places are the ultimate atmosphere for trying new things and for imagining yourself apart from the items that typically comprise our every day. If you can’t let loose on the other side of the world, then what are you traveling for?

4 Tourists We DON’T Want to Travel With

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

food bank volunteerA big blue tour bus that could probably hold some 60 people waited outside the pier for us — all five of us. We were three passengers off of a Crystal cruise ship, one crew member and one “host.” While other passengers headed off for a tour of Halifax, we were all here with a different goal in mind.

We were all volunteers for the line’s You Care, We Care voluntourism excursion to the Feed Nova Scotia food distribution center in Halifax. Feed Nova Scotia is a private charity that helps hungry people throughout the province by collecting and distributing food to more than 150 member food banks and meal programs.

Our job at the food bank was to unpack boxes full of food and household items, sorting them and repackaging them by category. Once we had a full box of a sorted item, like a box of grains or a box of condiments, we had to weigh it, label it and then put it on a pallet for shipping.

The Art of Slow Travel

Most of the boxes were heavy and dusty, and I ended up on the “wrong” side of the sorting table. My job was to lift the boxes onto the table. I was, after all, the youngest volunteer. I then unpacked the boxes, while our guide and Margie, another cruise passenger from Tennessee, sorted the items into their appropriate categories.

As we sorted, I was shocked to discover how much junk food (sorted as “snack” food) was donated. In the two hours we were there, we unpacked and repacked more soda, chocolate bars (Lindt chocolate!) and other varied snack items than any other category. I don’t think we ever filled a single canned meat box or dairy box, but the hungry people of Nova Scotia certainly won’t be wanting for Coke.

We didn’t talk too much as we worked, other than to consult on whether a six-pack of peaches was real fruit or a snack item (fruit if no added sugar; snack, otherwise), or which box olive oil should go into (baking, not condiments). But later, as we waited, hot and sweaty, for our bus to take us back to Crystal Symphony, I asked Margie and her husband Phil why they had decided to volunteer.

“We didn’t really like any of the other excursions,” Phil said. “But, back home, we believe strongly in giving back to our community.”

Volunteer Vacations

To them, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out one of these options. On previous Crystal cruises, they’d seen the voluntourism offerings but never tried them. (Editor’s Note: Crystal offers a free voluntourism excursion on almost every sailing.)

Would he do it again? “No promises,” Phil said. It would depend on what the other excursion offerings were.

volunteer handsAs for me, after two hours of lifting heavy boxes, standing around a sorting table and going through hundreds of food and household items, my lower back ached and my hands were filthy. I was ready to return to the ship. We were thanked enthusiastically for our time and though I was never going to get to see the end result of my work, I left feeling I had at least done a little something for someone else.

Until I did this excursion, I had never really considered volunteering some of my time while vacationing. If I’ve got five or seven days in a destination, giving up three hours really isn’t a big deal. Though I had come to the food bank through the cruise line, I am sure any tourist visiting Halifax who offered to donate some time would be welcomed warmly.

I am equally sure that every city has an abundance of nonprofit organizations that could use an extra pair of hands for a few hours. And the next time I travel somewhere for five days or longer, I’m going to look into it. That’s a promise.

–written by Dori Saltzman

packing suitcase frustrated womanAs Senior Editor of IndependentTraveler.com, I’ve lost count of how many thousands of words I’ve written about how to travel more efficiently and intelligently. Many of those articles have been advice on how to pack — like tips for squeezing everything into a carry-on no matter how long the trip, and recognizing the signs of four common packing problems. So you’d think by now I’d be a perfect packer.

And yet…

On a recent trip to Toronto, I forgot to pack not one, not two, but five things that I typically bring when I travel. While I managed to remember the absolute essentials — passport, medications, underwear — a couple of the items I forgot were pretty important. Like, oh, toothpaste. I also left without pajamas to sleep in, gum to equalize ear pressure during takeoff, a black tank top (without which one of my other shirts was unwearable) and a plastic bag for dirty clothes.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too hard to replace most of these items. My hotel came through with a dental kit, I borrowed a T-shirt to sleep in from a friend and I picked up a pack of gum (in a plastic bag, no less) at the airport. But I couldn’t remember the last time I’d packed so poorly — and done so by ignoring so much of my own advice. In the spirit of learning from my own careless mistakes, here’s what I’ll do better next time:

Start packing a few days before the trip. I never remember everything I need to put on my packing list the first time I write it out; starting a few days early lets me add additional items as I think of them. For my Toronto trip, I was so busy in the days leading up to the trip that I simply threw everything into a bag the night before I left. That was strike one.

Quiz: What’s Your Packing Personality?

Recycle packing lists from past trips. Let’s face it — most of what we pack is the same for every trip. So why reinvent the wheel each time? I often dig up old packing lists and adapt them for whatever trip I’m currently taking (shameless plug: it’s easy to do that if you save a copy of our interactive packing list). Had I done this for Toronto, there’s no way I’d have forgotten such basics as PJ’s and chewing gum. Strike two.

Restock your toiletry bag each time you get home. I grabbed the same quart-size bag of liquids and gels that I’d used on my previous trip, not realizing that I’d run out of toothpaste and failed to put another tube in. And that’s why I ended up brushing solely with water my first night in Toronto. Strike three.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

Which travel mistakes have you made, even though you should’ve known better?

– written by Sarah Schlichter