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If you’re anything like me, you’ve started planning countless three-day weekend getaways but never ended up going anywhere. Either you grew tired of obsessing over the right place to stay or the best-priced flights, or you got too busy and forgot to book the trip.

A new travel agency concept launched this year that can remedy the problem for you. But there’s a catch: When you book a three-day getaway through Pack Up + Go, you don’t actually know where you’re going.

couple in convertible road trip sunset


That’s not entirely true: You eventually know where you’re going, if you play along the way you’re supposed to and wait until just before you hit the road to open the mystery envelope revealing your destination.

The team at Pack Up + Go will plan a three-day trip for you in the Continental United States, based on how much you have to spend and what you want to do. On the company’s website, you fill out a brief survey, noting your per-person travel budget and whether you prefer to drive or to take a bus, train or plane. You detail your preferred trip pace, mention the cities you’ve visited recently and select your interests from a checklist of nearly two dozen options.

Add your address and credit card details, and your work is done. The team will select a medium-size or large city that’s three to four hours from your departure location. The only info you’ll know in advance is the weather forecast and a few packing suggestions.

A few days before departure, a packet will arrive in the mail, telling you what time to depart. The packet includes a sealed envelope containing your destination, confirmation paperwork and a suggested itinerary. (Additional details, including a link to a personalized Google map, come via email.)

Currently only American travelers can use the service, and destinations are only in the Continental United States. The minimum cost is $400 per person (based on at least two travelers) for a road trip and $650 per person for a plane/train/bus outing, and covers transport and accommodations only. All other costs, including food and activities, are out of pocket.

If you want to use the site, plan at least a month in advance; the service has been so popular that staff are working crazy hours to keep up with demand.

12 Ways to Be More Spontaneous When You Travel
Between Trips? Take a Microadventure!

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

This week’s puzzle is a country shapes quiz! Take a look at the silhouette and below and tell us which country you think it is.

mystery country


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, September 12, 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 Terri Slemp, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery country was China. Terri has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Check out the travel stories you may have missed this week.

elephant in africa


‘Our Living Dinosaurs’: There Are Far Fewer African Elephants Than We Thought, Study Shows
CNN reports on a new study that will upset safari goers and animal-loving travelers everywhere. The Great Elephant Census found that the number of elephants left in Africa is much lower than previously estimated — and it went down 30 percent between 2007 and 2014. (Note that some viewers may find a few of the photos in the story graphic or upsetting.)

13 Ridiculously Gorgeous Pictures of Norway
If all you want today is to swoon over huge pictures of beautiful places, Rough Guides has the photo essay for you. Just don’t blame us if you find yourself booking a flight to Norway when you’re done.

Syria’s Message to Tourists: Come Back, Enjoy Our Beaches
Thanks to an ongoing civil war, Syria isn’t currently on the must-visit list for many travelers these days. But the Washington Post reports that the Tourism Ministry in this beleaguered country is trying to lure visitors back with a set of videos featuring the country’s beaches and historic sites.

There Might Be Millions of Dollars in Your Plane’s Cargo Hold
Conde Nast Traveler reveals that in addition to suitcases packed with clothes and souvenirs, your plane’s cargo hold may also be transporting millions of dollars’ worth of currency being sent between banks. (And yes, the airlines charge fees for these checked items as well.)

The Clock That Changed the Meaning of Time
BBC takes a fascinating look at a medieval watchtower in Bern, Switzerland, and the Governor of Time who is responsible for keeping its clock running. It was this clock that sparked the brainstorm leading to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Priceline Kills Name Your Own Price for Flights
Priceline is best known for its “Name Your Own Price” feature, which allows you to suggest the airfare, hotel rate or car rental price you want to without knowing which company will accept your offer after you’ve booked. Skift reports that the service is no longer available for flights (but it remains for hotels and cars).

End of the Road
Maptia offers a peek into the vanishing world of Bhutan’s Brokpa tribe, who have made their living herding yak for hundreds of years — but whose way of life is now threatened by a new road and the encroachment of modernity.

This week’s video offers a unique challenge: to see how many “Looney Tunes” characters this Southwest flight attendant mimics during an in-flight announcement.


Planning an African Safari
9 Places to See Before They Disappear

— written by Sarah Schlichter

I admit it: I’m mourning the end of summer — those warm days spent basking on the beach, those last rays of sun lingering late into the evening. Fortunately, one of my favorite seasons to travel lies ahead.

I love autumn trips for the cool, comfortable weather, the lack of crowds and — of course — the colors. Check out five photos to get you in the mood to travel this fall.

scottish highlands autumn


Go hill walking in the Scottish Highlands and enjoy the dramatic fall colors — without the summer crowds. (Check out our 10 Best Scotland Experiences.)

mt fuji autumn


Japan may be most famous for its spring cherry blossom season, but autumn is a gorgeous time to visit Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, with fall foliage peaking from late October through much of November.

central park new york city autumn trees


Crisp, cool temperatures and crunchy leaves underfoot make fall our favorite time to wander through Central Park in New York City.

waterton lakes national park alberta autumn


Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta is one of many magnificent Canadian parks where you can go hiking through mountains blanketed in fall colors. (See our list of the 11 Best Canada Experiences.)

amsterdam canal in autumn


Amsterdam’s canals are picturesque any time of year, but there’s nothing like biking alongside the locals under a fiery orange canopy of trees. (Don’t miss our Amsterdam city guide.)

Where do you want to travel this fall?

The Best Travel Destinations for Every Month
12 Places That Shine in Shoulder Season

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Matt Dimmer had just relocated to Los Angeles when his father, living in Michigan, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Dimmer flew back and forth frequently, spending as much time with his dad as he could.

matt dimmer


As he made the trips, Dimmer kept thinking about others who had loved ones with cancer. He was able to afford the flights to go see his dad, but what about those who couldn’t? It pained him to think about people in that situation.

Just before his father passed away, Dimmer launched a small nonprofit organization to collect frequent flier miles from donors and to use them to book flights for cancer patients and their family members. His nonprofit, The Extra Mile, is marking its fifth anniversary this year.

IndependentTraveler.com: Tell us how The Extra Mile works.
Matt Dimmer:
The premise of The Extra Mile is pretty simple. We take donated air miles and money and give them to those who cannot afford to visit loved ones terminally ill with cancer. Currently we are cancer-specific, as that is what my dad passed away from and I wanted to stay true to the nature of my inspiration.

IT: Can you tell us about some of the people you’ve helped?
MD:
We’ve helped several people connect with terminally ill loved ones just before losing that individual. We’ve brought people over from Europe to the United States. We flew a 15-year-old with a rare form of brain cancer and his family to an event that was on his bucket list. And we brought a sister to her deceased brother’s funeral so that she could have one last moment with him.

IT: How does someone donate?
MD:
There are two ways to donate. You can donate money directly through our website, or you can donate your accrued frequent flier miles.

Donating air miles is a bit more complicated. Because of airlines’ policies, there are fees associated with giving air miles, and the fees raise on a scale depending on the number of miles you’re looking to donate.

Let’s say you wanted to give 3,500 miles. There’s likely a set fee for that ranging from $50 to $150. If the individual donating the miles is willing to pay the fee, that makes for the easiest transaction. Otherwise, depending on the fees and amount of donated dollars in our account, I’ll offer to cover the fee in exchange for the miles. This is a bit more of a process, but has happened a few times.

The cash donations are used mostly for purchasing tickets, but some funds go to paying for taxes on donated mile flights as well as minor operating costs for the organization.

airplane in blue sky


IT: How many miles have you collected in the past five years?
MD:
We’ve received hundreds of thousands of miles. They usually get spent as soon as we get them as there’s always an ongoing queue of people who have reached out.

IT: It can be difficult to secure a flight using miles. Do the airlines show more flexibility in helping your recipients?
MD:
Unfortunately, not really. The airlines stick to their rules, regardless of the reason for the miles being used. The most flexibility I tend to experience is the airline agent on the other end of the phone giving me a bit more time to pull all the necessary pieces together on that call so I can complete the flight.

I recently started a Change.org petition to encourage airlines to waive or lower the fees for transferring miles to someone else. I got frustrated one day and wanted to set something else in motion that would potentially get the airline’s attention.

IT: What plans do you in mind for the next five years of The Extra Mile?
MD:
Within the next five years I’d love to hit a major milestone, whether that’s amassing a team of volunteers, having a corporate partnership develop or making progress with at least one airline.

IT: Since The Extra Mile started, you’ve become a father yourself. How did becoming a father change your perspective on your cause?
MD:
Fatherhood is amazing. And it adds another level to the nonprofit. I can now imagine myself in my dad’s position, and all the things that I’d like to share with my sons about the time we had together. It also gives my boys something to continue, something that does good after I’m gone — a legacy started by their dad, in honor of their grandfather, that they can carry on.

Read More Travel Q&As
16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

— 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.

UNSAAJN, UTOPCIEROR

UTISN, STANIUI

ARWWAS, ADLPNO

OMAHSIHIR, AAPNJ


Enter your list of unscrambled cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, September 5, 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 Kathleen Copeland, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the puzzle answers below.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO

TUNIS, TUNISIA

WARSAW, POLAND

HIROSHIMA, JAPAN


— created by Sarah Schlichter

Check out our favorite travel reads of the week.

couple on vacation


Every Month, This Company Chooses a Random Employee to Send on a Two-Week Vacation
Okay, how do we land a job at this company? Travel + Leisure reports that The Motley Fool, a financial services firm, chooses one employee each month to take a spontaneous two-week vacation — complete with $1,500 of spending money.

Your Underwhelming International Holiday Photos
We love galleries of glossy destination photos as much as the next travel addict, but there’s something both funny and delightful about this roundup of lousy vacation pictures from the Guardian — complete with dismal gray skies, charmless parking lots and even an unwelcome eight-legged hotel guest. (Shudder.)

How Andy Steves Is Redefining His Dad’s Travel Guides for a New Generation
Fans of Rick Steves’ comprehensive Europe guidebooks will be glad to find out that his son Andy is carrying on the family business. Conde Nast Traveler checks in with the junior Steves to find out what’s on his bucket list, why print guidebooks are still relevant and what advice he’d give travelers before their first trip abroad.

Life With the Irish Travellers Reveals a Bygone World
A National Geographic photographer delves into the isolated culture of the Irish Travellers, an ethnic minority with an unwritten language, a nomadic way of life and a set of rigid gender roles. Her photographs offer a look into this rarely glimpsed world.

There Are Still Tons of Cheap Flights to Cuba You Can Book Right Now
On August 31, JetBlue became the first airline in more than 50 years to fly a regularly scheduled commercial flight between the U.S. and Cuba. If you’re looking to hop on one of these flights yourself, Time reports that there are numerous affordable alternatives on flights this fall, including October offerings from $205 roundtrip with taxes.

Returning to Everest: Trekking to Base Camp after the 2015 earthquake
A Lonely Planet writer checks out the scene in Nepal following the tragic earthquake of last year. She discovers that while some damage remains en route to the Everest Base Camp, the villagers along the way are eager to welcome back tourists.

Hong Kong’s Secret Night Meal
Foodies, take note — in Hong Kong it’s customary to eat not three meals a day, but four, reports BBC. Siu yeh is a nighttime snack served between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

This week’s video is part of a new ad campaign celebrating the “world’s greatest fliers,” who supposedly fly American Airlines. Those of you who’ve flown American — do you agree that your fellow passengers meet these lofty standards?


11 Things Not to Do on a Plane
12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies

— 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!

machu picchu traveler taking a picture


In this month’s winning review, a pair of travelers celebrate their anniversary with a trip to Peru: “Once inside [Machu Picchu] you ‘hike’ a rather steep path of cobblestone steps until you get to the overview (with our guide who was pretty proactive, it took us about 20 minutes),” writes cruisinbob. “Once at the vantage point, the view is simply awesome, much like the pictures you see.”

Read the rest of cruisinbob’s review here: Peru and Machu Picchu. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com sweatshirt.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Let’s say you’ve always dreamed of ringing in the New Year in Times Square, and you’ve always wanted to stay at the New York Marriott Marquis, with its revolving restaurant and stone’s throw location to the famous midnight ball drop. You go online to make a booking, only to find that all 1,900+ rooms are sold out. A dozen booking websites return the same frustrating result.

If you’re truly determined to get a room in that hotel, you can spend hour after obsessive hour scouring the Internet trying to nab a cancellation. Or you could let a new website do the work for you.

hotel room view


Type in your desired hotel and travel dates, and Open Hotel Alert will send you a simple email or text message as soon as a room opens up. You then click on a provided link to reserve the room on Booking.com, the site’s affiliate partner.

There are a number of scenarios where this service could prove useful:

– If you’ve saved up all your loyalty points to use on your honeymoon at a specific beach resort, but the property is sold out.

– You’re going to a popular conference in a large city, but all of the hotels near the convention center are booked. Set up alerts for all of the hotels in the vicinity of the conference, and you’ll receive a notice if one of them opens up.

– You’re planning on having client meetings at your hotel and really wanted a suite, but only standard rooms are available. The notification you receive from Open Hotel Alert will tell you which room types have opened up.

Open Hotel Alert has more than one million properties programmed into its site, according to its founder, Mark Downs. And as with similar sites like Hotel Room Alerts, there’s no additional fee to use Open Hotel Alert.

11 Things Not to Do When Booking a Hotel
6 Lies Your Hotel Might Not Tell You

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

This Friday’s challenge is a photo of an unidentified place somewhere in the world. Can you tell us where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Tuesday to see if you were right!

world destination


Hint: You can kayak, take a boat ride or even spend the night on this famous bay.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, August 29, 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 prize. 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 Dave, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Halong Bay in Vietnam. Dave has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

— written by Sarah Schlichter