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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: This castle, which dates back to the 1600s, is one of only 12 original castles remaining in its home country.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, January 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 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 Steve Grey, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Matsue Castle in Japan. Steve 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

After taking a few weeks off for the holidays, we’re back with another round-up of all the travel news you need to know.

uber steering wheelUber Is Thinking of Getting into the Travel Business
Uber has already revolutionized the way many of us travel, and the company isn’t done yet, judging by a recent patent. Business Insider explains how a new feature called “Uber Travel” would allow the company to find you flights and accommodations, as well as recommend the best time to call an Uber based on when you’re scheduled to land at an airport.

Hilton Wants You to Pay $50 for What?
As if we needed more fees in our life! Time reports that Hilton is testing out a new program that charges a $50 fee for any cancellation, even if it’s far in advance of your stay. (Wait till the day of arrival and you’ll pay for a full night.) The charge is designed to discourage travelers from using websites and apps that hunt for price drops and rebook them at a lower rate.

Hidden Hotel Fees

Zika: Coming to America Through Mosquitoes, Travel and Sex
In other bad news, there’s a new virus spreading around the world, according to Forbes. Known as zika, the illness is related to yellow fever and dengue, and was first discovered in Uganda. These days it’s heading northward from Brazil, transmitted mainly via mosquitoes. (Sexual transmission is suspected but not proven.) The best prevention method is to use mosquito nets and bug spray when traveling in affected areas.

The TSA May Now Deny You the Right to a Pat-Down
Those of us who feel uncomfortable with the TSA’s full-body scanners have always had the option of choosing a pat-down by a security officer instead — until now. The Department of Homeland Security released a statement last month giving the TSA the right to make a full-body scan mandatory “as warranted by security considerations,” reports Frommer’s.

Who Are the World’s Safest Airlines for 2016?
Nervous fliers won’t want to miss this annual list from AirlineRatings.com, which highlights the 20 safest airlines in the world. And the winner is … Australia-based Qantas, which tops the charts for the third year in a row. Several U.S. airlines made the grade, including American, Alaska, Hawaiian and United.

These 38 Airlines Have the Lowest Airline Safety Ratings
And here’s the counterpoint: the worst-rated carriers on AirlineRatings.com, as rounded up by Travel + Leisure. The good news is that you’ve probably never heard of any of these airlines, so you’re not too likely to fly them. (TransNusa? Daallo Airlines? Anyone?!)

Fear of Flying

We wrap up this week’s edition with a short film from western Mongolia, which captures the day-to-day life of the nomadic Kazakh people, including the fascinating way they train eagles to hunt for game.


— written by Sarah Schlichter

If you’re looking for a lightweight carry-on that you could also bring on a hike or take to the gym, consider the new High Sierra 22″ Duffel Backpack. As the name suggests, you can wear it on your back or carry it over your shoulder, making it a versatile option for various types of trips. The bag retails for $89.99.

We took the bag on a couple of quick holiday trips to test out its features — and here’s what we found.

high sierra 22 inch duffel backpack


The Good
It’s got plenty of compartments: Two side-loading compartments are ideal for stowing shoes separately from clothes, and you can tuck your phone or glasses case into the fleece-lined front pocket. An internal mesh pocket can hold dirty laundry. One caveat: It can be awkward to pack around items in the side compartments, which jut into the main section of the bag.

You can carry it multiple ways: You can grab the bag via sturdy handles on either side, or use the two straps on top to wear it as a backpack. You can also Velcro the top straps together to put the bag over your shoulder.

It’s lightweight and easy to stow: The bag weighs less than two pounds and, because it doesn’t have wheels or a rigid internal structure, is easy to stuff into the overhead compartment of a plane.

It’s water-resistant: When we poured water on the outside of the bag, the liquid immediately beaded up and ran off the side. The bag isn’t fully waterproof, so if you’re in a downpour it’ll eventually soak through, but your stuff should be protected well enough in light rain.

high sierra 22 inch duffel backpack


The Bad
It could use a longer shoulder strap: The company suggests that you can combine the grab handles into a single cross-body shoulder strap, but they’re not quite long enough to make this comfortable, especially for taller and/or larger travelers. A longer clip-on shoulder strap would have been a nice touch.

It doesn’t have wheels: If you’ve stuffed the bag full, it could get heavy during long treks between airport terminals. (Note that High Sierra offers a number of wheeled duffel bags and backpacks if you’re seeking those alternatives.)

It might be too big to carry on: The bag measures 22 x 14 x 12 inches, which exceeds some airlines’ carry-on restrictions. (American Airlines, for instance, limits carry-ons to a total of 45 inches, or 22 x 14 x 9.) That said, because the bag is so soft and flexible, you could easily squeeze it into the airline’s sizer if it’s not completely full.

There’s only one color: The bag is a new product and so far is only available in black with bright yellow-green trim.

Want to give this bag a try? We’re giving away our gently used black High Sierra 22″ Duffel Backpack! Just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, January 25, 2016. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the bag. 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. The winner is Susan David. Congratulations!

We received a free sample of this bag from High Sierra for the purpose of reviewing it and giving it away to a reader. All products are accepted with the understanding that we will review them in a way that honestly reflects our experience — good, bad or indifferent.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

tax return glasses calculatorWhen you rack up parking tickets, you can have your vehicle taken away from you. Now, the same could happen to your passport if you owe the U.S. Internal Revenue Service loads of money.

Thanks to a new law that went into effect on January 1, the State Department now has the right to revoke the passports of anyone the IRS says has a serious delinquent debt $50,000 or more.

“This is going to have an extraordinary impact [in terms of getting people to pay up],” Los Angeles tax lawyer Dennis Brager told CNN. Because penalties and interest accrue quickly, it’s not uncommon to see a much smaller debt skyrocket.

How the new law will be implemented remains unclear. It’s possible that the delinquents could have their new passport or renewal applications denied, or even have their active passports revoked. In the least, the IRS will be compiling a list of the delinquencies and will likely share it with the State Department sometime this year.

And there’s an additional, unexpected hitch: This could also affect some people trying to travel within the United States, starting in April.

The federal government passed a law a decade ago requiring that tougher standards for state-issued IDs. But fewer than half the states have complied. Some asked for waivers or extensions until October, and others haven’t moved on the issue at all.

The Department of Homeland Security is expected to announce any day now how it will deal with this ID conundrum. If it decides to start enforcing the new ID law sometime this year, that would mean that residents of the states in violation of the Real ID Act won’t be able to present their driver’s licenses to board a domestic flight. You’d have to show a passport.

So, if you have an excessive tax debt and you live in one of those states, your passport could be revoked, meaning you couldn’t even fly from Minneapolis to Milwaukee if you wanted to.

It’s all complicated and bureaucratic, but the lessons to be learned are simple: Make sure you have a valid passport, and pay your taxes.

11 Ways to Prevent Identify Theft While Traveling

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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!

moscow metro station In this month’s winning review, a traveler takes his family from India to Russia and Northern Europe, exploring treasures both expected and unexpected. “[We visited] all the major attractions in Moscow such as St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, the Kremlin, etc.,” writes Vishwajit Patel. “We had an unplanned visit to the metro in Moscow. The Russians have definitely made a masterpiece of metro stations. Anyone travelling to Moscow must definitely visit the metro stations.”

Read the rest of Vishwajit’s review here: Russia/Scandinavia Experience. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

It’s around this time of year that I start thinking about the perfect winter escape, and islands nearly always capture my attention. I tend to drift toward the Caribbean, but why? There are tens of thousands of islands on the planet, after all.

The following lists have gotten me to think about island escapes in a new way:

The 55 Best Islands in the World: Dozens of top travel bloggers around the world told DrifterPlanet.com about their favorite islands. One writer picked Spain’s Mallorca, which he acknowledged as touristy but noted: “There are absolutely some more secluded parts of the island to discover.” Another selected Saona Island, a nature reserve off the southeast tip of the Dominican Republic.

saona island beach boat dominican republic


The Best Private-Island Vacations for Every Budget: The Wall Street Journal selected the top 12 islands that you can have all to yourself — and they’re not all eye-poppingly expensive. Bird Island in Belize, for example, runs just $295 a night for a three-bedroom house with blue sea views in every direction.

The Largest Islands in the World: While there’s plenty of remote charm to be found on little postage stamps in the middle of the sea, large islands tend to have more unique biodiversity, meaning you’ll get to see wildlife and plants found nowhere else on Earth. Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo top the list of the largest islands in the world.

borneo orangutans


The World’s Must-Visit Islands: This roundup from the BBC includes the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, Tristan da Cunha, in the southern Atlantic Ocean.

Islands for the Jet Set: These glamorous islands span the globe, from Nevis in the Caribbean to the Maldives south of India to spectacular and little-known gems off Mozambique.

maldives beach


6 Cruise Line Private Islands: Our sister site Cruise Critic provides the lowdown on six Caribbean islands that are only accessible if you go on a cruise. Many are in or near the Bahamas.

Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Winter?
Escape the Cold: 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Travelers looking to explore the Yangtze River in China or the Danube in Europe may have already heard of Viking River Cruises, which offers dozens of boats plying various rivers around the globe. But the company has recently expanded to include larger ocean-going cruise ships, with the first one launching earlier this year.

Viking Star is the first of three identical, 930-passenger ships; the other two, Viking Sea and Viking Sky, will debut within the next two years. I recently sailed aboard Viking Star from Barcelona to Rome to see how well the experience might suit independent travelers. Read on to learn what I loved about the cruise — as well as a few drawbacks.

viking star cruise ship


1. Unique Itineraries
Viking Star sails all over Europe as well as to the Caribbean and the East Coast of the U.S., and it’s hard not to be enticed by some of the less-traveled ports the ship visits. The 14-night Ancient Empires & Holy Lands sailing, for instance, starts in Rome and includes calls in Israel (Haifa and Jerusalem) and Turkey (Ephesus and Istanbul) as well as Naples and Athens. Or head north to follow “In the Wake of the Vikings,” a journey that starts in Bergen, Norway, and passes through Scotland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland en route to Montreal. The Caribbean itineraries start in Puerto Rico instead of Florida, minimizing days at sea and allowing passengers to explore islands like Tortola, Guadeloupe and Antigua.

2. (Almost) Everything Is Included
On most mainstream cruise lines you’ll pay extra for things like onboard Wi-Fi, dinner in an alternative restaurant, and beer/wine with meals — all of which are included on Viking Star. There’s always one free shore excursion in each port as well (typically an introductory bus or walking tour). Another nice perk? All cabins have balconies.

Note that a few things do cost extra, including spa treatments, gratuities for the crew, some shore excursions, and premium cocktails, wines and spirits.

3. Tasteful Ambience
If your vision of cruise ships includes cheesy, over-the-top decor and crowded buffets, rest assured; as befits its Scandinavian sensibility, Viking Star feels elegant and understated. My favorite spots included the quiet Explorers’ Lounge, where you can curl up on a couch with a book from the well-stocked bookshelves, and the Nordic spa, where you can cool off in a Snow Grotto between trips to the sauna or hot tub.

viking star explorers lounge


4. Longer Days in Port
On my Mediterranean sailing, Viking Star overnighted in two different ports (Rome and Barcelona), and stayed late in most others; passengers didn’t have to be back onboard until 8 to 10 p.m. — unusually late for the cruise industry. That meant we had at least 12 hours to explore each day, giving us the option to take multiple excursions or to eat both lunch and dinner ashore if we wanted to experience the local cuisine.

5. Enrichment and Immersion
Daily lectures (such as “The Restoration of the Sistine Chapel: What Went Wrong and Why?”) and informational port talks help passengers get to know each destination before visiting, and many of the shore excursions go beyond the usual major sightseeing attractions. For example, one offering in Rome takes travelers to the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, which predates the rise of the Roman Empire. During a call in Livorno, Italy, you can take a cooking class in a medieval Tuscan castle or meet working artisans in Florence. Viking also offers a Kitchen Table experience that involves shopping with the ship’s chef at a market in port and then working with him to prepare local specialties (such as Spanish tapas).

viking star infinity pool hot tub


Caveats
Despite all of these benefits, there are a few important caveats to note about sailing with Viking Ocean Cruises. Most importantly, despite the overnights and longer days in port, these itineraries have the same major drawback as any other cruise, particularly in Europe: not enough time. Spending a single day in a city like Florence or Jerusalem will give you no more than a taste — especially in places where the port is a one- or two-hour bus ride from the city you actually intend to see. To avoid frustration, consider your cruise a sampler that will help you figure out which cities are worth a longer visit in the future.

Also, while the included shore excursions are a nice perk, independent travelers who chafe at the thought of shuffling along with 35 other tourists behind a guide holding up a Viking sign should book their own private tour (for a more personalized experience) or simply go it alone.

Cruises start at about $2,000 per person (not including airfare). Learn more at VikingCruises.com.

Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: I traveled as a guest of Viking Ocean Cruises, with the understanding that I would cover the trip in a way that honestly reflected my experience — good, bad or indifferent. Along with the cruise itself, Viking also included some complimentary extras to allow me to experience various aspects of its onboard experience. You can read our full editorial disclosure on our About Us page.

stefanie payne jonathan irish bryce canyon national parkStefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish quit their jobs, rented out their condo, found temporary digs for their cats and will head out next week on an adventure years in the making.

Starting on New Year’s Day, the two Washington D.C. residents will spend a year visiting every national park in the United States. They selected 2016 for their trip partially because it’s the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

As Payne, a 36-year-old writer, and Irish, 41, a photographer, finished packing up their home, we caught up with the couple to hear more about the journey ahead.

Independent Traveler.com: Why did you decide to do this road trip?
Jonathan Irish:
Stefanie and I both grew up loving the great outdoors, and especially the beautiful nature in our U.S. national parks. The special celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service, along with our love of nature, inspired us to commit to spending the entire year adventuring and photographing in every one of the 59 parks. We can’t think of a better way to spend a year.

IT: Was it scary to quit your jobs?
JI:
While we appreciate the stability that a regular job provides, every once in a while it is good to shake things up, to see life in a different way. As hard as it was to leave jobs at organizations we love [Payne worked at NASA and Irish at the National Geographic Society], we both felt the pull to do our own project.

IT: Where do you go first?
Stefanie Payne:
We’ll start in the southeastern United States, where there are five parks — three in Florida, one in the U.S. Virgin Islands and one in South Carolina. We are going to reveal our route as we go, to keep an element of surprise.

IT: How will you be traveling?
JI:
We will be traveling in an SUV towing an Airstream travel trailer. We chose the Airstream for two reasons. First, there’s a certain nostalgia we associate with Airstream trailers that is similar to the nostalgia we feel for the national parks. It felt like the right way to do it! From a more practical standpoint, we needed to have a home office on the road. The Airstream provided us with that ability to have a consistent place to work and rest.

We are calling this a road trip, and we will drive to every park where we can in fact take the car and Airstream. But there are some parks on islands — American Samoa, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands — where we will have to fly and rent a vehicle.

IT: Which parks are you most looking forward to seeing?
SP:
I am so excited for Katmai in Alaska! Growing up in Washington state, the annual salmon run is a big part of the culture in terms of Native American history and the ecology of the region. To see its end with grizzlies catching them in the river, and to get that iconic shot, will be for me a strong personal connection.

JI: I too am excited for Alaska, and in particular some of the remote parks that a lot of visitors don’t get to, like Gates of the Arctic. I love photographing the Southwest, so am very excited for more time there. The bigger parks, like Yosemite and Yellowstone, are always amazing and so to spend some good time in them is a dream. And I am excited for the unknown, the unexpected experiences that we can’t foresee that blow us away.

SP: I also think there will be a lot of beauty found in parks that I didn’t know existed until we started researching this project.

JI: I think the road trip in itself — the trials and tribulations of living in small quarters and driving throughout the entire U.S. — will be really fun and interesting too.

IT: What kinds of activities do you plan to do in the parks?
colorado river grand canyonSP:
Jon and I love to hike and kayak, so there will be a lot of that year-round. And we got some new stand-up paddleboards, which neither of us have ever tried and can’t wait to learn.

JI: We’ve chosen to see and experience the Grand Canyon via rafting, which has always been on our to-do list. We will kayak and camp in the Everglades, hike in just about every park and of course, take lots of photos.

IT: What has been the most difficult part of the planning?
JI:
For me, it’s been the million little details that we must be on top of. We’ve been in D.C. for seven or eight years now, and in that time we’ve become quite entrenched in so many ways. I don’t think one can fully understand or see how entrenched they are until they try to pick up and leave. From finding a temporary home for our cats, to renting the condo, cutting the cable bill, packing up, getting new health insurance and a million other details, it’s incredibly hard to make a major move like this.

SP: Planning for this project has been a balancing act like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It’s an enormous amount of change to endure during a short period of time.

IT: What’s on your must-pack list, and what are some of the creature comforts of home you won’t be able to bring along?
SP:
Must pack: Outdoor gear, awesome hiking boots, books, camera gear. We’ll bring maps and obviously use iPhone maps and apps.

JI: I am packing my camera gear very carefully, as I want to be prepared for everything. We are also making sure we have the camping and backpacking gear we need in order to dig as deep into the parks as we want to. Besides a great coffee maker, I can do without most other things!

SP: We can’t imagine not having our cats with us all the time, but it’s just not that kind of trip.

IT: Can we check in with you in a few months and see how the trip is going?
SP:
So much is going to happen all the time and we are so excited to share our story this year. The story will unfold on our website and Facebook page.

National Park Vacations
Less Traveled National Parks

–interview conducted 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, December 21, 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 Pat, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Belarus. Pat has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

On the first day of a recent trip to Barcelona, Spain, I found myself elbow to elbow with a mob of fellow tourists outside Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batllo, one of the city’s most famous attractions. A few hours later, I shouldered through the hordes at a Christmas market in front of the cathedral. And the next day I discovered a line stretching out the door of the basilica in Montserrat (a popular day trip from Barcelona), where hundreds of travelers waited to touch the hand of the revered Black Madonna. I’d hoped to miss out on crowds by traveling in early December, part of Spain’s winter low season, but that wasn’t the case — with one exception.

During an hour and a half at Pedralbes Monastery, located in a leafy residential area just a 15-minute subway ride from the center of the city, I wandered through the world’s largest Gothic cloister, peered into small cells where nuns once embroidered and prayed, and marveled over a chapel adorned with colorful 14th-century frescoes. The best part? I had this serene spot almost entirely to myself.

pedralbes monastery cloister barcelona


Known in Catalan as Reial Monestir de Santa Maria de Pedralbes, the monastery was founded in 1327 by Queen Elisenda de Montcada as a home for the Poor Clare Sisters, an order of Franciscan nuns. While the sisters lived lives of quiet contemplation, they also accumulated a surprising number of religious treasures, from altarpieces and alabaster sculptures to gold and silver chalices. (My favorite? The massive, richly illustrated choir books.) Many of these artifacts are on display under the vaulted ceiling of what was once the nuns’ dormitory.

As you walk through the monastery, you’ll see the sepulcher of Queen Elisenda, the refectory where the nuns took their meals, the abbey room (the oldest part of the building) and even the kitchen, where I loved the colorful tiles added in the 19th century. It’s easy to imagine what life may have been like here, especially when you stand in the center of the cloister with its trees, fountains and medicinal garden. It’s a perfect place for quiet contemplation — and a balm to anyone seeking to escape the crowds at Barcelona’s top tourist spots.

pedralbes monastery fresco barcelona


To reach the monastery, you can take the FGC train (which connects easily to the Metro) from Placa Catalunya to the Reina Elisenda station, a 10- to 15-minute walk from Pedralbes. Barcelona’s hop-on, hop-off bus also runs out to the monastery. Note that the church attached to the monastery is accessed via a different entrance and has more limited hours, so you may want to stop there first to make sure you don’t miss out.

Photos: 10 Best Spain Experiences

Do you know any other under-the-radar attractions in Barcelona? Share them in the comments!

— written by Sarah Schlichter