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airplane seatsMany consider spring a time for renewal — birds are chirping, flowers are blooming and people are getting married in droves. But just because winter is over and spring is on its way, doesn’t mean we immediately feel like singing “Here Comes the Sun.” What better cure than travel for what ails you? These five suggestions might be the change of pace you need to get chirping, blooming and falling in love with the season.

 

I’m Still Cold — For many of us, this winter was a brutal one and is still hanging tight. If the upwards motion of your thermometer is moving at a painstaking pace, jump-start your sun worship with some solar energy. The prospect of being stuck at a warm-weather resort during spring break is a scary one, so consider less conventional locations to heat you up. Post-Carnival, many South American capitals experience a dip in tourism. Lucky for us, weather is still pleasant in March and April (average highs in the 70s to 80s) and prices are cheaper in cities like Lima, Cartagena, San Jose, Santiago, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. If you’re looking for something a bit farther, try a number of hot (literally and figuratively) Southeast Asian destinations including Chiang Mai, Goa and Luang Prabang in Laos; temperatures get into the 90s, but evenings are cooler and your money will go much farther in this region. If you’re looking to venture closer to the states, Mexico City offers equal respite from frozen precipitation and partygoers.
 
Slideshow: 10 Best Peru Experiences
 
I’m Tired — Like jet lag, but seasonal, post-hibernation sloth might take an adjustment period. To transition you from your winter cocoon into a spring butterfly, why not retreat for some vernal rejuvenation? From the spa keystone of Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona or Lenox, Massachusetts to a hotel in Paris that offers rooms specializing in a sleep-inducing atmosphere, why not splurge on some beauty rest? Helping you catch Zzzs has become an industry trend, according to a recent New York Times article.
 
I Haven’t Moved in Months — The New Year brings resolutions, but it also brings inevitable excuses: It’s dark out too early, it’s cold, I’m swamped with work, I just want to curl up into a ball and marathon everything ever broadcast on television. A new season is stimulus to step outdoors and renew your self-promises, and why not kick-start the process with an entire change of scenery? Plenty of walking, biking and other generally active tours will motivate you into movement with ample sightseeing and rewarding rest breaks. Not every active tour moves at a breakneck speed; Access Trips offers biking trips at beginner to intermediate levels, and tour companies like G Adventures allow you to sort through vacation packages by travel style and physical level. Destinations wrap the globe and feature Costa Rica, Turkey and the Outback.
 
Slideshow: 11 Best Australia Experiences
 
I Miss Holidays — Sure, we had Thesaurus Day (January 18) and National Earmuff Day (March 13), but they lacked the hoopla of the major winter holidays. This lull in festive food-stuffing and paid time off can be a bummer, so travel somewhere that’s celebrating something! Tourism Week (March/April) has replaced Holy Week in Uruguay, as a country with no official religion. As for a devoutly religious country, Italy always seems to be celebrating a saint’s day — The Feast of St. Mark takes place on April 25 in Venice, and features boat races with gondoliers. Same goes for India — days of religious observance pepper the calendar throughout the year, with many taking place in April. The city of Brasov, in Romania, officially welcomes spring with Junii (Feast of Youth) — including an elaborate horseback parade and weeklong feast around the Easter holiday season. You can even ring in the first day of summer, in April; it takes place on April 24 in Iceland.
 
Slideshow: 12 International Foods to Try Before You Die
 
I Miss Winter — This phrase may fall on deaf ears, but some people actually like winter — to the point where they want more than a few months of it. If you can’t get enough of the frozen wonderland, and don’t plan on visiting either of the poles, then perhaps the Antarctic Experience at museums in either London or New Zealand will satisfy the need for extreme wintry conditions. Outside of an artificial experience, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a traditional winter in spring in the northern hemisphere or fall in the southern hemisphere. Still, plenty of places in the world experience snow in April, and Scandinavia is one of them. Ski resorts thrive into spring in Norway, Sweden and Greenland, but mainly in high-altitude mountainous regions. As a bonus, the aurora borealis can still be witnessed throughout the month of April.
 
– written by Brittany Chrusciel

airplane seatsWhether we acknowledge it or not, most of us have rituals when we fly. Some people pack their carry-ons the same way each time, while others know exactly where to buy that perfect airport breakfast sandwich — and how much time they’ll need to get it before boarding.

My own rituals center around one goal: scoring an exit row aisle seat every time (preferably without paying some sort of extra fee). When I’m sitting in “my seat” — 9C or 9D, depending on the airline and type of plane — all is well in my world. Any annoyances incurred before this point fall away and I’m ready for wheels up.

My husband has an even stronger attachment to the exit aisles. At 6-foot-5, he feels that the extra legroom isn’t a comfort; it’s a necessity — and he too will do everything he can to make sure it’s his. Being an elite flier helps, but he’s not above asking the gate agent to take pity on him to avoid an extra charge (usually after one look at his tall frame, they are happy to oblige).

Exit rows aren’t the only desirable seats, of course. My sister doesn’t care if she’s in an aisle or window, as long as she’s near the front of the plane when it lands (a cross-country flight stuck in what’s generally regarded as the worst seat on the plane — the non-reclining row in front of the bathroom — scarred her for life). And some editors here at Independent Traveler insist on a window seat so they can get the first glimpse of their destination upon arriving.

How to Get the Best Airplane Seat

How do you find “your” seat if you aren’t a frequent flier? I’m a big fan of SeatGuru.com (owned by our parent company, TripAdvisor), which shows you exactly which seats on a particular airline or plane are considered “best.” It’s an essential resource, particularly if you’re flying long-haul on an airline that’s unfamiliar to you.

At the risk of sounding obvious, it’s also important to choose your seat when you book. Not all airlines require you to do this, so it’s important to take your time during booking and not rush the process. Don’t forget to enter your frequent flier number, even if you’re a long way from elite! Loyalty can get you noticed.

But if you’re stuck in a bad seat at booking, don’t despair. You still have several chances to change your luck. The first one comes when you check in online; be one of the first (most flights open for check-in 24 hours in advance) and you might grab a prime location that hasn’t been snatched up by an elite.

Finally, when you’re at the airport, you can ask for changes in two different spots: at the counter when you check in and at the gate. Remember to stay polite and respectful with your requests; good manners go a long way these days.

Surviving the Middle Seat

Once you’re on the plane, you can still make your experience better, even if your seat isn’t the best. While few flight attendants have the power to upgrade you, they can make your life a little easier — and I’ve received free drinks just for being understanding and amenable.

– written by Chris Gray Faust

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns SeatGuru.com.

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two lush green landscapes.

Would you rather…

… soak in tropical hot springs in Costa Rica, or …

hot springs waterfall costa rica



… explore Bali’s verdant rice terraces?

rice field bali indonesia


As Elissa Leibowitz Poma writes in 12 Best Costa Rica Experiences, “Given its volcanic landscape, Costa Rica has quite a few natural hot springs and mud pools. Most are open to the public; independent travelers visiting small towns should ask around about hot springs on private property that you can get permission to access with a sweet smile and small ‘donation.’” In Bali, the rice terraces climbing the green hills make for striking photo ops. Some of the most beautiful are near the village of Tegallalang.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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!

dragon, tiger, pagodas



Hint: This island’s distinctive pagodas reflect traditional culture but were built in the 20th century.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, March 31, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. 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 Tricia, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas in Kaohshiung, Taiwan. Tricia has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

There’s something about train travel that just feels romantic. You’re not behind the wheel; you’re not in a middle seat at high altitude; you’re simply coasting along with an oftentimes sweeping view. This form of travel lends itself well to getting lost in thought, so why not use it to do something memorable? Here are three ways to turn your next rendezvous with the rails into more than just an ordinary journey.

Write the Next Great American Novel
girl, train, thinking

Have you ever wished for a prestigious writer’s residency? Well, how about one onboard a train? The #AmtrakResidency program, sponsored by Amtrak, is calling all writers to submit their applications for a multi-day writing residency aboard one of the railroad’s domestic trains. Free of charge, the program is in part marketing for the train line, but it’s also a fantastic chance to use our nation’s passing landscapes to inspire poems, prose or even tweets. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis through March 2015. According to the site, “A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.”

Travel Back to the ’20s with National Geographic
train, spain, El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo is a private train with original British Pullman cars refurbished from the 1920s. Serving the northern coast of Spain, the line is frequently chartered by National Geographic for rail journeys through the scenic region. Your expedition includes the tips of a professional photographer and a special excursion through the wine region with a one-night stay at Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos, which claims to be the oldest hotel in the world. Suites onboard the train include a queen bed, living room, large windows, private bathroom with a shower, hydro sauna, and steam bath. Watch Basque country pass by your window as you chat with onboard National Geographic experts.

Relive a Wes Anderson Film in India
train, india, darjeeling, himalayan, railway

Director Wes Anderson’s newest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” features many scenes onboard a train in a fictional faux-European region called the Republic of Zubrowka. But another one of his films, “The Darjeeling Limited,” was inspired by a very real train line: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Train travel in India is a microcosm of the whole country: crowded, chaotic, unpredictable, impressive and a feast for the senses. The railway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the beauty of the countryside is just as apparent on screen, during sibling spats, and off. Whether you’re three brothers on a cinematic journey for closure, or just along for the ride, this train trip is bound to bring a plot twist.

Slideshow: The World’s Most Spectacular Train Trips

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo photo used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Simon Pielow.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

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!

lubeck germanyIn this month’s featured review, reader Lyn Hargreave describes a journey in which she aimed to experience Germany “as a traveler, not a tourist.”

She accomplished that through a cultural exchange organization called Friendship Force International: “Every night, we were treated to dinner in different homes, as we were previously during our stay near Hamburg. Our hosts planned and showed us what we asked to see. So easy! No cars to rent, no train schedules to hassle with. The hospitality of new friends through Friendship Force International made this a warm and very personal experience. We now look forward to welcoming these new friends to our homes next year.”

Read the rest of Lyn’s review here: Germany Up Close and Personal. Lyn has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two scenic rides.

Would you rather…

… go kayaking in Milford Sound, New Zealand, or …

kayak kayaking milford sound new zealand



… take a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway in California?

pacific coast highway california


Milford Sound (actually a fjord) is one of the most popular attractions on New Zealand’s South Island, but most visitors see it via a small cruise ship rather than on a more intimate kayaking journey. (Intrigued? Roscoe’s Milford Kayaks is one local operator.) If driving is more your speed, you can’t beat the Pacific Coast Highway for sweet scenery along the California coast.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

Photos: 13 Best New Zealand Experiences

– written by Sarah Schlichter

This week marks the debut of another new travel puzzle: a “guess the flag” challenge. Can you identify which nation the following flag belongs to?


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, March 24, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. 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 Bonnie, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Azerbaijan. Bonnie has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

good night sleep maskIn the eternal quest for better sleep on planes, here’s a unique product to try: the Good Night Sleep Mask from Magellan’s. Unlike most eye masks, this one is specially molded so that it doesn’t press right against your eyelids, allowing for rapid eye movement (REM) and therefore more refreshing sleep, according to Magellan’s.

I was eager to give the Good Night Sleep Mask a try; I use eye masks often, not only on planes but also on weekends at home when I want to block the morning sun out and sleep in for a few extra hours. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it particularly comfy to wear, especially at first. The nose piece felt too tight and hampered my breathing a bit, so I had to wear the mask slightly higher than it seemed to be designed for. That left the bottom edges of the mask digging uncomfortably into the sensitive skin under my eyes.

I persevered, though, and found the mask less bothersome the second and third times I tried it. As for the sleep itself, the mask was dark enough to block out the light and allow me to doze off, and I woke up feeling rested. It’s hard to say whether I felt any more refreshed than I had wearing other eye masks, but I’m going to keep this one around just in case.

How to Sleep Better on Planes

The mask sells for $14.50 plus shipping on Magellans.com, and is available in four colors: black, cocoa, pewter and ocean blue.

Want to try it yourself? We’re giving away an ocean blue Good Night Sleep Mask to one lucky winner. To enter, leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on March 27, 2014. We’ll pick one winner at random. 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.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

top gear carsTrekking through the Amazon, embarking from Canada as the first to drive to the magnetic North Pole, road tripping through Botswana and even riding through Chernobyl; it may sound like the best travel show you’ve never heard of, and that’s because it’s not a travel show at all — it’s Top Gear, a British program about cars.

The hosts — Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond — are car MacGyvers and automobile enthusiasts who drive and review virtually anything with wheels, along with the show’s anonymous racecar driver known only as the Stig. Airing in its current format for more than 10 years, the BBC show primarily features cars you could never dream of owning placed along the winding roads of drool-worthy backdrops such as the Amalfi Coast or the dunes of Abu Dhabi.

Clarkson could be considered the Anthony Bourdain of car shows (with May and Hammond just as cheeky) for those unfamiliar with the Top Gear concept. Their clever devil-may-care personalities, impressive knowledge and adventurous spirit lend themselves well to British banter and thrilling test drives, but even better to their globe-trotting (er, driving) episodes.

Though there may be other challenges peppered throughout, most seasons culminate with a special that inevitably flings the trio across the globe on a daunting journey in seemingly preposterous conditions. They make eating bugs or snakes with some remote tribe look like a cake walk. Typically armed with a tight budget and a ridiculous set of conditions, they forge ahead to find the source of the Nile or retrace the pilgrimage of the three wise men. In Bolivia, the motoring threesome bought second-hand off-road vehicles and navigated them to their mechanical limits across jungles and hair-raising hairpin turns on what’s known affectionately as Death Road. They then attempted a risky ascent into Chile across Guallatiri, an active volcano. This was thwarted by altitude sickness, but the footage they took was spectacular.

Slideshow: The Eight Best U.S. Road Trips

This season’s two-part finale (which has just aired) takes place in Myanmar (Burma), and the Top Gear camera crew was granted access to remote areas of the country — a first for any television crew. The challenge: to build a bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand and then drive across it. Along the way they gave viewers a first-time glimpse into the world of the Shan — an area of Myanmar larger than England and Wales combined with just one road built 150 years ago, no electricity, no hospitals and no planes overhead. Still in the midst of a 60-year-long civil war (the longest-running in the world), the Shan is unveiled as a lush, untouched stretch of otherworldly earth, with a reclusivity that gives it a mystique rarely found in today’s hyper-connected universe. Here’s a preview:



I was initially worried about making it through an hour-long British TV show about cars, but I’ve walked away each time laughing and actually learning something — not just about the coupes, convertibles and caravans, but about the countries the hosts drive them through. I’ve discovered that you don’t have to tune in to the Travel Channel to find travel; you can find it in the most unexpected places. For me, that sweet spot is Top Gear. Think of it as armchair travel with an engine.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel