Home

Explore. Experience. Engage.

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

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

lisieux In this month’s winning review, a traveler to France mixed visits to religious sites (such as shrines and convents) with secular experiences (such as a boat ride on the Seine). “Upon arrival in Lisieux, we had some down time before we were taken to the Basilica of St. Therese for our opening Mass in a chapel; then we were able to tour the basilica and grounds plus go into the gift shop after Mass was done,” writes Janet Marie. “It was amazing to see all of the various artwork and photos related to St. Therese. To be there was a true blessing, and something I wanted to experience as St. Therese is my favorite saint.”

Read the rest of Janet Marie’s review here: Catholic and Secular France Pilgrimage/Trip. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

While friends of mine spent their recent snowed-in weekend reserving their summer vacation rentals and booking flights to Florida, I took the opposite approach: I looked through photos of some of my favorite snow-covered destinations around the world.

longyearbyen svalbard


Svalbard, Norway: As I bemoaned my cabin fever this weekend, I thought about how the hearty residents of one of the world’s northernmost towns would laugh at my whininess. The archipelago of Svalbard — and specifically its main city of Longyearbyen — was my first experience in a faraway Arctic outpost where people eke out a living year-round. I visited in July, when the temperature was a balmy 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the streets were clear of snow. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, because polar bears often wander into town.

ice zodiac svalbard norway


From Longyearbyen, we then sailed throughout Svalbard for 10 days aboard a cruise ship with a strengthened hull that could cope with the slushy waters. We took daily excursions via Zodiac landing crafts, getting splashed by the frigid water the whole time. But the natural ice sculptures that surrounded us at every turn took my breath away and I barely noticed the cold.

Photos: 9 Incredible Animals to See in the Arctic

polar bear churchill manitoba


Churchill, Canada: A November trip to Churchill, Canada, put me in close proximity to polar bears. Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, as the bears congregate there waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze so that they can hunt.

Following a three-hour flight from Winnipeg, I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac and was immediately whipped in the face by 50-mile-an-hour winds. It was the coldest weather I had ever experienced — negative 41 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill.

churchill manitoba sunset


The cold was worth it, though, with close-up views of polar bears (from the safety and warmth of specially outfitted and heated polar rovers) and sunsets like the one above.

11 Best Canada Experiences

grand teton national park wyoming


Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, U.S.A.: Yellowstone National Park is a marvel, but neighboring Grand Teton National Park is a gem in wholly different ways. Even in June, the Tetons were still covered in snow during my visit, making for a lovely backdrop as we went kayaking on Colter Bay.

Like Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is accessible only half the year, and most of the lodging is closed in winter. Snow cover makes it virtually impenetrable for most travelers.

National Park Vacations

birds in alaska


Southeast Alaska, U.S.A.: Sailing in a small vessel through the Inside Passage of Alaska left me cold to the core, even in the middle of summer, thanks to a bone-chilling rain that fell on us nearly the whole time. But the gray skies created atmospheric backdrops for photos, and I got to see calving glaciers for the first time.

Planning a Trip to Alaska

What are your favorite cold-weather destinations? Post them in the comments below.

— written and photographed by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

This week’s travel puzzle is part of our ongoing Flag Friday series of challenges. Can you identify which nation the following flag belongs to?


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, January 25, 2016, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Deb Crosby, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Kyrgyzstan. Deb has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

hong kongRead up on the latest from around the travel world with our weekly roundup.

10 Places It’s Cheaper to Fly to in 2016
If you’re dreaming of a trip to Hong Kong this year, you’re in luck — that city tops Kayak’s list of the top travel destinations for airfare savings in 2016, reports Time. It’s 26 percent cheaper to fly there this year than it was last year. Also on the list: Chicago, Beijing, Bangkok and Athens, among others.

The “Boring” Cities Worth a Second Look
Eric Weiner at BBC Travel argues that the cities we often think of as “boring” — such as Geneva, Switzerland and Cleveland, Ohio — actually have a lot to recommend them. You go in with no expectations, so you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised. And boring places have their own charm that flashier places don’t: “When you relinquish the spectacular, you are rewarded with the quieter joy of the ordinary,” writes Weiner.

No Vacation Nation: 41% of Americans Didn’t Take a Day off in 2015
Well, this is depressing. Nearly 41 percent of U.S. respondents to a recent poll went all of 2015 without taking a single vacation day, reports Skift, and another 17 percent took fewer than five days off. Clearly, more Americans need to read that survey that says travel makes us happier.

Travel Broadens the Mind, But Can It Alter the Brain?
The Guardian looks at the benefits of studying or living abroad, which include being more creative, open-minded, independent and emotionally stable. The article also notes that coping with the challenges of travel keeps our minds sharp. (We always knew travelers were smarter…)

The Loophole That Could Save You Money on the Cost of a Flight
The U.K.’s Daily Mail has unearthed an interesting tip for saving money on airfare. If you’re planning to take internal flights within a foreign country, you’ll sometimes pay less if you purchase those flights while you’re in that country — or if you pretend to be from that country when you book.

Department of Transportation: Pilots Are Forgetting How to Fly Manually
Nervous fliers should probably give this article a miss. Popular Mechanics reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation is concerned that an over-reliance on automation has made modern-day pilots less proficient in manual flying — and more likely to make errors in situations that demand it.

Lufthansa Will Change How You Check Bags in 2016
For once, some good airline news! Conde Nast Traveler reports that Lufthansa will be introducing digital tags for checked bags this year, which will allow the airline to track the location of your suitcase and keep you notified via an app. In case of delays, you can tell the app where you want your bag delivered once it arrives.

Big Changes Coming for American’s Reward Program
Aaaaannd now we’re back to lousy airline news. The Dallas Morning News alerts AAdvantage members about coming changes to American Airlines’ rewards program, which include more limited dates for booking off-peak tickets, more miles required to book trips in some markets, and a new way of earning miles based on price paid instead of miles traveled.

For your visual eye candy of the week, we travel to Ireland with this dreamy, cinematic video:


Photos: 12 Best Ireland Experiences
10 Things Not to Do When Checking a Bag

— written by Sarah Schlichter

visually impaired woman and companionWhat does travel look like without sightseeing? Fortunately for blind or visually impaired travelers, there’s a tour company out there to help them — and sighted travelers — find out.

Traveleyes, founded in 2004 by a blind man who loves to travel, offers small-group trips to a wide array of destinations around the world, including Australia, Morocco, Italy, Bulgaria and Peru. What makes the company special is that the trips pair blind travelers with sighted companions who serve as guides, describing the scenes in front of them and assisting them with navigation through restaurants and shops. In exchange, sighted travelers save up to 50 percent off the cost of the trip and get the satisfaction of helping their new friends discover the world.

To make the experience as rich as possible for everyone, itineraries emphasize multisensory activities such as learning the tango in Argentina, riding a camel in Morocco and tasting wine in Rome. This isn’t just for the benefit of blind travelers. On the Traveleyes website, the company notes that this is a benefit for sighted travelers as well: “Seeing is only part of the experience. As a sighted traveller, you’ll be guided on how to explore the world through all of your other senses. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ve been missing out on.”

No experience is necessary for sighted travelers — the company provides pre-trip information as well as training on the first day to help you learn how to guide. Blind and sighted travelers will be partnered with different companions each day throughout the trip so everyone can get to know each other.

Rates for sighted travelers start at just $283 per person, while rates for blind travelers start at $552 per person. Rates do not include flights or transfers unless you’re traveling from the U.K.

Disabled Travel Tips
Part-Time Voluntourism: How to Give Back During a Trip

Would you try a trip with Traveleyes?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Grenada, Micronesia, Tuvalu and Samoa are among the most forward-thinking and ethical travel destinations in the world, according to a California-based tourism nonprofit. In fact, seven out of the top 10 destinations making the biggest strides in environmental protection, social welfare, human rights and animal welfare are islands.

Each year, an all-volunteer cast from an organization called Ethical Traveler does a deep dive into the policies and practices of countries in the developing world. The team then selects the nations that are making the most progress in protecting their environment and their people. The winners must also be attractive travel destinations, offering “unspoiled natural beauty, great outdoor activities and the opportunity to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enriching way.”

apia samoa beach boats


The full list of 2016 winners, in alphabetical order:

– Cabo Verde
Dominica
– Grenada
– Micronesia
– Mongolia
Panama
– Samoa
– Tonga
– Tuvalu
Uruguay

Why so many islands? “Climate change affects islands dramatically, so they tend to be very aware of the importance of effective environmental policies,” the report said.

Green Travel Tips

Panama was praised for escalating its reforestation efforts and for low unemployment rates. Cabo Verde in Africa is seeing more women holding high-ranking leadership positions. The Caribbean island of Dominica provides widespread free healthcare to its citizens and works to protect the marine life along its coast.

mongolia herder eagle


Uruguay gets 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources and has made education of children a priority. And in Mongolia, a half-million people — including 70 percent of all herders — use solar energy.

Acknowledging that “no country is perfect,” Ethical Traveler notes nonetheless that visiting the winning countries allows travelers to use economic leverage to reward good practices.

Slideshow: Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?
Find Your Ideal Island Escape

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five countries that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter. For examples, check out this blog post.

Ready to give it a try? Here’s this week’s challenge:

asian capital cities


Enter your list of countries in the comments below. You have until Monday, January 18, 2016, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Lizzy Spencer, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

asian capital cities


— created by Sarah Schlichter

airport plane sunsetCatch up on what you may have missed this week with this roundup of our favorite travel stories.

52 Places to Go in 2016
The New York Times kicks us off with an inspiring collection of destinations to visit in the coming year, complete with droolworthy photos and videos. Suggestions include familiar favorites (such as Dublin, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising) and up-and-comers (such as Garzon, a new wine region in Uruguay).

Inside One of the World’s Biggest Airline Food Factories
CNN visits the Emirates Flight Catering facility in Dubai, which provides 55 million meals a year for hungry fliers. It’s fascinating to learn the scale of the operations here — for example, the facility cleans three million items of equipment every single day. (Now that’s a lot of dishes!)

Airports Shutting Terminals at Night in Effort to Evict Homeless
Conde Nast Traveler examines a recent push by U.S. airports to force out homeless people by shutting down public, pre-security areas overnight. Especially this time of year, many homeless people find airports a warm, clean and safe place to sleep, and some “fear the alternative: a city shelter that is often dirty and dangerous.” New York’s LaGuardia and Washington D.C.’s Reagan are among the airports cracking down.

Old Driver’s License? You Can Still Fly for Two More Years
There’s been a lot of anxiety lately about the new Real ID Act, which sets minimum security standards for driver’s licenses and other identification cards — standards that are not currently met by some states. Fortunately, the Associated Press reports that there will be at least a two-year reprieve before travelers in non-compliant states will have to use an alternative form of ID instead of their driver’s license when flying within the U.S.

Irish Hotel Helps a Lost Toy Bunny Find Its Way Home
From the “Awwww” department comes this Travel + Leisure story of a stuffed animal left behind at the Adare Manor Hotel in Ireland. The hotel staff took good care of the toy, sharing photos on the property’s Facebook page of the bunny taking afternoon tea and getting a massage while it waited to be reclaimed by its young owner. Adorbs!

Our favorite travel video of the week is an upbeat journey around the cities, beaches, deserts and mountains of Morocco. (We love the soundtrack.)


Photos: 11 Best Morocco Experiences

— written by Sarah Schlichter

travel photos in hands“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

airplaneLayaway programs seem like such a retro way to pay for something — I remember going with my mom to pick out new bedroom furniture at a discount department store in the 80s, then going back a few months later to pick them up.

Layaway all but disappeared as a shopping option in the early 1990s, then started making a small resurgence during our most recent economic downturn. Today, layaway programs are available from select travel companies: Sears Vacations, Disney and Gate 1 Travel all offer pay-in-pieces programs to help you budget for a vacation.

The latest layaway venture for travelers? A startup called Airfordable that allows you to pay for airplane tickets on an installment plan.

It works like this: You send a screenshot of a flight you want to book to Airfordable, along with a nonrefundable deposit of a third of the fare, and the company purchases the ticket for you. The team at Airfordable then sets you up with a payment plan. As long as you submit all your payments in full before your flight date, you’re good to fly.

“Airfordable’s layaway plans for air travel [reiterate] that memories are priceless and global enrichment is key in becoming a well-rounded person,” company founder Ama Marfo wrote on the Airfordable blog. Marfo shared the story of how she, as a college student, couldn’t travel home to Ghana during the holidays because she couldn’t afford the air ticket costs all at once. That’s what motivated her to start this venture.

7 Mistakes to Avoid When Booking a Flight

Sounds like a nice option for those on a tight budget or those with high-interest credit cards who can’t pay off the cost of a ticket right away. But there are a few catches: Airfordable charges a 20 percent fee on top of the ticket price, and your desired flight cannot cost more than $2,000.

Would you try Airfordable?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma