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Would you welcome a traveler you’ve never met to come sleep on your couch for free? If you would, you’re not alone; CouchSurfing.com, a website devoted to connecting travelers with local hosts, has a network of some 12 million members, including Jamie Matczak.

jamie matczak borgarnes iceland


Matczak lives with her chocolate lab in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and has been a Couchsurfing host for three years. She’s hosted guests from Hawaii, France, Denmark, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Texas, Wisconsin and South Korea. “I look at it as a fellowship type of exchange,” says Matczak. “I am providing a room in exchange for a new friendship!”

We chatted with Matczak by email about why she’s chosen to host, whether she’s had any safety issues and how welcoming strangers into her home has changed the way she travels.

IndependentTraveler.com: What made you decide to start hosting?
Jamie Matczak:
I had stayed with families on a trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2011 and was looking for a similar experience on a solo trip to Spain in 2012. I discovered the Couchsurfing site and loved the idea of offering travelers (surfers) a couch/room as they are traveling. I signed up, and even though I didn’t use it for my trip to Spain, I began to receive requests as a host. I had previously hosted women from France through a different program and enjoyed the experience.

IT.com: What are the biggest benefits of hosting?
JM:
The biggest benefit is getting to know someone new, possibly someone from another country. As a traveler who has been to more than 30 countries, I enjoy hearing about life and cultures in other places. I want to have conversations and learn, and that occurs with all of my guests. I also like the opportunity to show some highlights of my city, Green Bay. Surfers arrive at my house as strangers but leave as friends.

IT.com: As a woman who lives alone, have you ever had any safety concerns about hosting strangers? How do you protect yourself?
JM:
The site has verification checks, so you know if people are legit. Every profile also has a references area, so I can read what other hosts have said about a potential surfer. I typically don’t accept guests who don’t have any references, or if I feel something seems “off.” I tell friends or family when a surfer is arriving, just as a back-up. So far, I have not had any bad or unsafe experiences. I choose to believe that people on the site are using it for something positive.

IT.com: Why host people for free instead of charging a nightly fee with a service such as Airbnb?
JM:
I have considered using a site such as Airbnb where a fee is charged, but I don’t think that would fit with my busier lifestyle. With Couchsurfing, I don’t feel as bad if I have to decline a request or turn off “hosting” if needed. Also, I think if I charged a fee, I would feel under more pressure for my home to be spotless and perfect. Most Couchsurfers are happy to have a bed and are easygoing if my home doesn’t look perfect. And it’s really not about the money. With Airbnb, I might gain more in my pocketbook, but not necessarily gain a richer experience.

IT.com: Who’s the most memorable guest you’ve ever had?
JM:
EVERY guest has been memorable in their own way. As a few examples, I hosted two friends from Australia who were driving to all 50 states. I met two women from Wisconsin who were in Green Bay to volunteer for the weekend. I hosted a young woman from France who was studying for the semester at our local university, and when she arrived, her campus apartment was not available. In January, a father and son from Germany stayed with me because the father took his son to a Packers game as a high school graduation gift. Most recently, I hosted a young man from Korea who is walking across North America.

IT.com: Are you still in touch with folks you’ve hosted? Have you ever slept on their couches in return?
JM:
Yes! Most of them are on Facebook, so that is a great way to stay in touch. I have not visited any of my guests, but I hope to in the future. I have tentative plans to visit the family of the German father and son, as well as a former surfer who is now in Taiwan.

IT.com: Has hosting people changed the way you travel? If so, how?
JM:
Definitely. I lot of people ask me what I “get” out of hosting. It’s not just a new friendship, but I also feel like, as a solo traveler, I have been really fortunate on my trips. People have loaned me a cell phone to use or offered me rides when I’ve been lost. Of course, you have to be cautious and careful when traveling alone, especially as a female. But hosting people has made me more aware that most people in this world are good and want to do good things. They want to be helpful to other travelers, just as I do.

The 7 Cheapest Ways to Travel
How to Solve Common Airbnb Problems

— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

During his first visit to Rome, Serguei Sofinski and his wife explored the city on foot after conducting extensive guidebook and app research and charting what he thought was the most interesting route. But inevitably, an attractive side street or tucked-away fountain not listed in any guidebook would draw their attention.

strol app


“When you travel, you want to use every moment to absorb and enjoy the destination you are exploring,” Sofinski says. “There were plenty of apps showing directions to major sights or suggesting predefined street tours, but none provided a scenic route that could begin from anywhere.”

So Sofinski, a Harvard Business School grad and San Francisco-based software expert, created one.

His travel app and website, Strol, provides travelers with a scenic walking route in just about any city or town on the planet, even the ones guidebooks gloss over. Punch in your desired destination, and the program gives you a clearly marked and interesting route on a simple-to-read map. Points of interest — including lesser-known monuments, buildings and other sites — are marked with a star; touch or click on it to see photos and basic factual information about the attraction.

You can also chart out a route based on the amount of time you want to walk. Let’s say you’re staying at the Four Seasons in Buenos Aires and you have 30 minutes to kill before meeting a friend for dinner. Type in your location and select a half-hour, and Strol will recommend the most scenic route.

The app uses crowdsourced information, so it’s constantly evolving and adding new attractions, large and small. Routes are also scored, based on what ordinary users (not guidebook writers) find interesting, so you get an idea how engaging the route will be. My sample half-hour stroll through Buenos Aires scored 3.20, whereas an hour-long jaunt starting in Times Square, New York, scored a 6.02, with more than 50 points of interest noted. (According to the Strol website, the most interesting destinations are scored at 7 or higher.)

Though the algorithms behind it are very complicated, Strol is a simple-to-use app that makes wandering more interesting. And it will only get better in the future as more attractions are added and more users score routes.

Would you give Strol a try?

The World’s 9 Best City Walking Tours
What Not to Do in a New City

— written 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, July 11, 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 Wendy, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Uganda. Wendy has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Catch up on what you might have missed in the travel world this week.

men in business class


Meet the Husbands Who Fly First Class — While Their Wives Travel in Economy
Would you be okay sitting in cattle class while your spouse chills out in first or business? The Telegraph profiles a number of couples that regularly fly separately, with the husband at the front of the plane and the wife in the back. “In my opinion, everyone should travel this way. I think first-class is really rather wonderful — the only way to fly,” says one charming husband, who might feel that everyone should fly in first but won’t pay for his wife to do so.

Travel Photographer of the Year Contest: 2016 Winners
Feast your eyes on these stunning shots submitted to this year’s National Geographic Photographer of the Year Contest, covering destinations from Varanasi, India to Chile’s Atacama Desert.

U.S. Approves 8 Airlines to Fly to Havana Beginning This Fall
USA Today reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation has tentatively approved flights to Havana, Cuba, aboard eight American airlines. If these schedules are given final approval after the upcoming comment period, you’ll soon be able to fly to the Cuban capital from Los Angeles, Miami, Charlotte, Atlanta, New York, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, Houston and Newark.

A Longtime Concierge on Hotel Tipping, Online Reviews and More
Conde Nast Traveler interviews a head concierge at the Stafford, a five-star hotel in London, and gets his perspective on the importance of responding to online reviews, the difference in tipping between the U.S. and the U.K., and his number one tip for hotel guests.

Shrinking Pool of Future Pilots Keeps Major Airlines on Edge
Bloomberg reports on an alarming problem in the airline industry: not enough people to fly the planes. Within 10 years, U.S. airlines are expected to be understaffed by some 15,000 pilots, thanks to many older captains retiring and not enough people interested in taking up flying as a career.

Cheryl Strayed: A Close Encounter at Badlands
“Wild” author Cheryl Strayed writes vividly in the New York Times about a 1994 encounter with a bison while she was camping at Badlands National Park.

19 Dreamy Pictures of Croatia
Everyone needs a little eye candy. Indulge yourself with this photo essay from Rough Guides featuring swoon-worthy shots of Croatia.

This week’s featured travel video takes the viewer on a journey through the colorful souks and remote deserts of Morocco.


11 Best Morocco Experiences
12 Travel Photography Mistakes to Avoid

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Many travelers are taking unnecessary risks when they use homesharing services like Airbnb or ridesharing services like Uber — in ways that could lead to identity theft — according to a survey by LifeLock.

identity theft data security


The provider of identity theft protection services reports that if you’re considering renting out your home or spare room, you’d better assume your guests are snoops: 41 percent of survey respondents (including 57 percent of millennials) admitted to looking through personal items when visiting someone else’s home. Meanwhile, 49 percent of respondents said they often fail to lock up personal documents in their own homes.

Even if you wouldn’t consider having a stranger stay in your home, the LifeLock survey found that many people make what could be costly mistakes when they’re traveling; 37 percent of respondents do not put their mail on hold during vacations. LifeLock notes that criminals could gain access to personal data by accessing your mail while you’re away. We’d also add that an overflowing mailbox is a signal that you’re out of town, which could entice burglars to target your home. (For more on this, see Keep Your Home Safe on Vacation: 9 Essential Tips.)

Ridesharing services and taxis are another opportunity for your personal data to be compromised. Nearly a quarter of survey respondents (24 percent) admitted that they’d left a valuable personal item such as a wallet or cell phone behind in a taxi, Uber or other ridesharing vehicle. The number was even higher among millennials at 41 percent.

So how can you keep yourself safe? LifeLock recommends password-protecting your devices and enabling the “lost phone” function (so you can track the device or even delete its contents remotely). If you’re hosting guests in your home, make sure any sensitive documents are safely locked away, and offer a different Wi-Fi network for guests than the one you use yourself.

For more ideas on how to protect yourself, see 11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

In December we introduced you to a couple who quit their jobs, loaded their possessions into an Airstream travel trailer and set off to visit every national park in the United States. Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish are now halfway through their all-American adventure, capturing it in real time on their Facebook page and sharing more in-depth stories and photography on their website, The Greatest American Road Trip.

Their current location: Zion National Park. We checked in with them to see how the trip is going.

grand canyon national park hiker


Independent Traveler: Six months on the road, and you both still sound so upbeat and enthusiastic! How are you faring?
Jonathan Irish:
Personally, I feel as though we are living an exclamation point. Everything seems to be punctuated with the extreme. We are so tired from the constant moving, so energized by the beauty of the parks, so grateful for the opportunity to see these beautiful places, so humbled that we are touching so many people with memories from their own park experiences as well as inspiration to get out and keep exploring. It’s everything all at once. It is definitely the best year of our lives.

Stefanie Payne: It seems like an obvious answer, but we are having the best year. We’re enjoying every minute … even when it’s tiring. To be truthful, this is a really hard project in a lot of ways. Keeping up with producing and editing content is literally a round-the-clock job. And some days you just don’t want to hike eight miles up a mountain! But the desire to make the most of this opportunity and create meaningful content that people (and we) enjoy fuels us in a way that makes fatigue fall away.

IT: Tell us about some of your favorite moments so far.
SP:
Some of the highlights for me have been the big hikes — the Subway at Zion, Grand Canyon Rim to Rim, a hike to the ancient Bristlecone Pines in Great Basin, Nevada.

JI: I love the early morning photo explorations, when the rest of the world is sleeping and the world is just coming to life. During these outings, I always find myself in beautiful locations, walking in the woods or in the mountains, the sun just starting to rise.

I also love the big hikes we’ve been doing, where we’ve challenged ourselves. The Subway hike in Zion, the Rim to Rim in Grand Canyon, the Panorama Trail in Yosemite. These are great memories for me.

big bend national park jonathan irish


IT: What has been the hardest part of this trip — something you didn’t expect to be challenging?
SP:
Just keeping up with editing. That is the monster on this project. We put out a thorough snapshot from each park, I feel, but there is so much we’re creating that we simply don’t have time to work through. For every photo, memory, idea, there seem to be 100 more unshared and unsaid.

JI: I second Stef’s answer. It’s one thing to travel to the parks, but another to put out great content that people will want to come back to. It takes a lot of creative energy, which is very hard to keep at a high level all the time. Luckily, the nature in the parks renews us every time we feel drained.

IT: And what was easier than expected?
SP:
The task of finding and making a great experience in every park. Somehow, we always seem to manage to capture a park in a way we’re satisfied with.

IT: We saw you on “Good Morning America” recently and caught a glimpse of the inside of the Airstream trailer. Is it hard living in such a small space?
SP:
We’ve been living in a small space together for many years so we didn’t expect it to be difficult. But it is helping us to improve how we communicate. Any bickering has to be pushed through pretty quickly. There just isn’t time to not get along. And we’re both pretty happy.

JI: Being a full-time RVer has been easier than I expected. We love our Airstream and have gotten very used to living in it. In many ways, it is bigger than a lot of NYC apartments! And we love the fact that we are mobile. I could get used to this RVing life!


IT: What have you learned about yourself from embarking on this road trip?
JI:
This kind of trip tests one’s resolve and energy. We’ve found that we always have more of both than we thought, which has been really satisfying.

SP: We have more energy in ourselves than we might think. The trick is to apply it to something you love doing, surrounded by those whom you love doing it with.

National Park Vacations: Top Tips
6 National Parks We Want to Visit Around the World

— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

This week’s puzzle is a word scramble. Below are the jumbled names of four major cities from around the world, followed by the country where they’re located. Your job is to unscramble them. For example, “IALM, EURP” would be “Lima, Peru.” Identify all four mystery cities to win.

TWOTAA, AADACN

EBCLANOAR,SNIAP

PLAAZ, IILOVBA

STCAMU, MOAN


Enter your list of unscrambled cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, July 4, 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 Kathy Litz, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the puzzle answers below.

OTTAWA, CANADA

BARCELONA, SPAIN

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA

MUSCAT, OMAN


— created by Sarah Schlichter

Check out this week’s most compelling reads from around the travel world.

rome woman with view


Want to Retire in Your 30s and Travel The World? This Woman Did
We can’t all be wealthy lawyers raking in a six-figure salary, but this Forbes piece on a woman who retired in her 30s to wander the world is still inspiring. Thanks to a thrifty lifestyle and aggressive saving, she put away huge chunks of her salary and is now able to travel on just the dividends from her investments.

From Skyrises to Traffic Jams: Our Densely Populated Planet — in Pictures
This photo gallery from the Guardian offers an incredible view of the Earth’s people, animals and cityscapes.

Delta Flier Gets Entire 160-Seat Jet to Himself
Thanks to a delay and subsequent rebookings by other passengers, Steve Schneider found himself the only person on a Delta flight from New Orleans to Atlanta, reports USA Today. The flight took off despite its emptiness because the airline needed the plane in Atlanta for a departure the next day. All of this leaves us wondering: Why doesn’t this ever happen to us?

Inside the Fight to Save One of the World’s Most Dangerous Parks
This in-depth essay from National Geographic offers a sobering look at the struggle of conservationists to preserve Virunga National Park in war-torn Congo, home to more than half of the world’s remaining gorillas. It’s a dangerous job; 152 park rangers have been killed over the past two decades.

How ‘Brexit’ Will Affect Travel to Europe
The New York Times investigates the ramifications of the recent Brexit vote for American travelers, from cheaper airfares to potential impact on the U.S. travel industry.

What I Learned in Italy About Loving My Body
This thoughtful essay from AFAR details a woman’s journey from worrying about her weight every time she considers dessert to appreciating Italy’s culture and history by fully experiencing its cuisine.

U.S. Border Authority Seeks Travellers’ Social Media Details
Do you want the U.S. government reading your tweets? BBC reports that Customs and Border Protection (part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) has proposed an update to visa waiver application forms that would ask applicants for their social media handles. The question would be optional.

This week’s video is a dreamy look at India’s people, places and food.


10 Best India Experiences
16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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!

classic cars havana cuba


In this month’s winning review, an American traveler explores her Cuban heritage: “Growing up, I was curious about my grandfather’s birthplace, an island that we could not visit,” writes Elisa Evans. “He didn’t talk about his childhood in Cuba so I knew very little, but this trip with my mom would give me the opportunity to see, taste, hear and feel what my grandfather experienced growing up, and help me understand the spirit of the Cuban people.”

Read the rest of Elisa’s review here: Cuba Trip with My Mom. Elisa has won an IndependentTraveler.com sweatshirt.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Nadine Sykora is one of the most popular travel video bloggers on YouTube, with more than a quarter-million people subscribing to her channel. Known online as “Hey Nadine,” the spunky and fearless 28-year-old Canadian takes a refreshing approach to her videos, documenting excellent adventures and being upfront for the camera when things don’t go so right. She spends almost half the year on the road.

nadine sykora


IndependentTraveler.com: Are you surprised by your success on YouTube?
Nadine Sykora:
Success is a tricky word. It depends on your definition. I don’t say I’m surprised since I’ve worked years and years to get to where I am. I say I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and happy with where I am.

IT: How did you catch the travel bug?
NS:
I’ve been traveling since 2010 when after I graduated university, before getting a “real job.” I decided to move overseas on a working holiday to New Zealand for one year. During that time, I worked part-time and did short trips around New Zealand, China, Bali, Malaysia and Singapore. Ever since then I was hooked — the excitement of new things, new places. The full-on travel bug!

IT: You’re a lot more honest in your videos and blogs than a lot of travelers. If things don’t go well, you’re perfectly willing to say so, even admitting, as you did in one blog a few years ago, to emotionally breaking down after your equipment was stolen. Why did you decide to take such an honest approach?
NS:
I think it’s important to show all aspects of travel. The good, the bad, the silly and the ugly. Because it’s all those experiences combined that give those fully enriched travel experiences. Scrolling through Instagram, it’s easy to [think] that travel is just beautiful locations and perfect selfie moments, but honestly it’s so much more than that. So I like to show that.

IT: How do you make a living when you’re not traveling?
NS:
I’m actually home a surprising amount, as I’ve started to space out my trips a bit more as I get into my sixth year of travel. I spend the time at home editing content, pitching new ideas and projects, and doing a bunch of odd jobs for work like writing or working on video projects.

IT: What are your most recent favorite destinations? And care to admit the places you probably won’t ever go back to?
NS:
My most recent favorite is definitely Patagonia (see video below). It’s just simply so spectacular there! So many picture-perfect locations. I don’t really have any places I wouldn’t go back to, simply because each time you visit a place, you have new experiences. So to me it’s not just the places I visit, but the experiences I have.


IT: Where are would you like to go where you haven’t been to yet?
NS:
India and Ireland. They are my top places for sure.

IT: And where are you going next?
NS:
No idea! Maybe Mexico, maybe Asia again. The world is my oyster.

The World’s Best Walking Tours
9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma