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souvenirs statue of libertyRacks of $5 T-shirts, Eiffel Tower boxer shorts, tacky mugs and other tchotchkes have given souvenirs a bad name, but most travelers still like to bring home some meaningful memento from a trip. It just takes a little hunting sometimes.

Most of my own favorite souvenirs are art objects, like a cerulean-colored clay pot made in Santa Fe and a delicately drawn painting purchased directly from the artist in Morocco. I also enjoy supporting local independent bookstores by picking up a novel or poetry anthology to read on the plane ride home.

Here at IndependentTraveler.com, we recently asked our Facebook readers to fill in the blank: “The best souvenir I’ve ever brought home is _________.”

We’d like to try out Nancy Stanley’s item, a “hand-carved chess set from Belarus.” Rugs seemed popular with our readers; Chris Hagen Straub brought one home from India, while Deborah Fortuna snagged one in Morocco. Meanwhile, Joshua Senzer went for the bling: “Colombian emeralds.”

Ron Buckles shared an experience from a trip to Europe: “While visiting Karlstejn (Czech Republic) there was an antique stop in the village. Hidden in a corner was an old cigar box with the Karlstejn Castle pictured on it. Price was $3.” A steal!

Some of our other readers brought home less tangible items. “I rarely buy any kind of souvenir,” wrote Jo Kula. “I usually keep bus tickets, train tickets and such. But I really love my pictures and putting them in frames.”

Trish Sayers keeps it simple — “great memories” — while Colleen R Costello likes to come home with “new friends and invitations that frequently lead to future trips.”

But it’s tough to top Carolyn Spencer Brown’s response: “My husband! We met while both traveling solo. In Naples!”

Souvenirs don’t get much better than that.

What’s the best thing you’ve brought home from your travels?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Snow may be lingering in the forecast, but spring is fighting its way into the air. Soon there will be something to show for it, when plants begin to bloom from every nook in the seasonally halcyon days of histamine.

Among the fragrant indicators of warmer weather, none is as iconic as the cherry blossom tree. A Japanese tradition, cherry blossom or sakura festivals take place each spring when the trees reach peak bloom (typically in early April). This became a U.S. tradition over a century ago, when Japan gifted us with more than 2,000 trees as a symbol of friendship and good will in 1912, and 3,800 more in 1965. Since then, cherry blossom tourists have primarily flocked to our nation’s capital, where these trees flaunt their annual pinks and whites.

While Washington D.C.‘s National Cherry Blossom Festival is a gorgeous spring display and celebration of international relations, it’s not the only festival of its kind. In fact, it’s not even the largest in the country. Check out these four alternative cherry blossom festivals living in its shadow; you may be surprised by their locations.

branch brook newark new jersey cherry blossom essex county


Branch Brook Park: Newark, NJ
With more than 4,300 trees to its name, Branch Brook Park — in the unlikely city of Newark, New Jersey — is home to the nation’s largest collection of cherry blossoms. It’s the Garden State, after all! Each April, more than 10,000 people gather in the Essex County park for its spring festival of events including a 10K run, a bike race and Bloomfest, which hosts Japanese cultural demonstrations, food, music, a crafter’s marketplace and plenty of children’s activities. The grounds are sprawling, so it’s the perfect setting for a picnic — or hanami — under the pink awning of the trees. This year’s events kick off on April 5 and culminate with Bloomfest on April 13.

Macon Georgia cherry blossom festival carriage children


International Cherry Blossom Festival: Macon, GA
The self-proclaimed cherry blossom capital of the world, Macon, Georgia, is host to a number of year-round events celebrating the cherry blossom, in addition to its annual international festival and parade. With a whopping 300,000 – 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees around Macon, it’s no wonder the town revels in all things cherry tree — they can’t escape them! Riding tours like the Cherry Blossom Express offer relaxing tree-peeping trips as you visit the most unique places around Macon. For a bit more excitement, check out the Tunes & Balloons Fireworks Finale, which caps off the festival’s celebrations. There are a number of events scheduled this year, but the parade takes place on March 23 and the season concludes with the fireworks finale on April 5.

Photo used and shared under the following license: GNU Free Documentation License. Original photo copyright Wikimedia Commons user Macondude.

shinto shrine pond brooklyn botanical cherry blossom


Sakura Park/Brooklyn Botanical Gardens: New York City, NY
Many people recognize Washington D.C. as the home to Japan’s generous gift of cherry blossom trees, but not as recognized are the 2,000 trees from the same gift living in a small park in Manhattan. Sakura Park isn’t host to any huge parades or festivals, but blooms quietly each spring along the northern tip of Morningside Heights. Close to Grant’s Tomb, it’s in a peaceful and historic section of the city, making it the perfect escape for urbanites on a springtime afternoon.

Nearby, a tree grows in Brooklyn — well, make that multiple trees. The cherry blossom display at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden includes a Shinto shrine and pond. Sakura Matsuri is the BBG’s annual cherry blossom festival that offers more than 60 events and performances celebrating both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. The festival is typically in late spring, as it marks the end of the cherry blossom season. This year’s events take place April 26 and 27.

geese schuylkill river cherry blossom philadelphia


Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival of Greater Philadelphia: Philadelphia, PA
Encouraging you to “visit Japan without leaving Philly,” the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia is host to the area’s Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival, a collection of Japanese music, art, food and culture, right in the City of Brotherly Love. Events and demonstrations span martial arts, flower arranging and even a sushi competition. With cherry blossoms as the backdrop, immerse yourself in Japanese culture with a Dine Out Japan restaurant week and taiko drum performances. All the festivities lead up to Sakura Sunday, held at the Horticulture Center in Fairmount Park. This year’s events begin on April 2 and conclude on April 13.

For more ideas, see our Top 10 Stunning Spring Destinations.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

airport baggage claimYou’re a lucky traveler if you’ve never experienced an air travel glitch. Whether you’ve been bumped from an overbooked flight, had a bag lost or experienced a delay, airline hiccups are a fact of life. A lesser-known fact, however, is that the law might entitle you to compensation if your flight doesn’t go as planned — and we don’t mean just in the form of a better seat or a credit for a future booking. But the airlines’ convoluted policies make it intimidating for most travelers to pursue claims.

Cue AirHelp. Popular in Europe, the company officially brought its services to the U.S. market earlier this month, helping displaced air travelers to seek retribution. As we note in our story on bumping and overbooking, you could be eligible for a refund of up to $1,300 if you’re bumped from an overbooked flight. But who has time to research, file and follow up on claims?

AirHelp does. While we haven’t gone through the entire claim reporting process, it seems easy enough. The initial five-step system asks you to 1) choose whether you were delayed, canceled or bumped; 2) list your departure and arrival cities; 3) tell AirHelp whether your flight was direct or had connections; 4) enter the flight number and the date of the flight; and 5) provide information like your name, email address, reservation number, total time of delay and reason given by the airline.

Airport Delays: 6 Ways to Cope

After you submit your claim, AirHelp will determine whether you’re entitled to some sort of refund and, if so, follow up with the airline on your behalf (for which you give your permission by signing a power of attorney document).

The upside? If you’re not paid, you owe nothing for AirHelp’s services. If they score you some cash, they keep 25 percent. It seems like a lot at first, but without AirHelp’s assistance, it’s unlikely you’d be seeing anything at all.

The downside? If the service catches on, there’s no telling whether already struggling airlines might reflect their losses in the form of higher ticket prices. (AirHelp claims that 98 percent of eligible passengers don’t currently apply for compensation.)

What are your thoughts? Would you try AirHelp?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

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 “true blue” experiences.

Would you rather…

… explore the historic medina of Chefchaouen, Morocco, or …

chefchaouen morocco medina blue



… bathe in the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, Iceland?

blue lagoon reykjavik


The mountain village of Chefchaouen, in northeastern Morocco, is famous for its picture-perfect blue architecture. Meanwhile, the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, fed with hot mineral water from beneath the earth’s surface, is one of Iceland’s most famous attractions.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Here’s something fun to kick off your weekend. It’s a travel-themed picture puzzle. You just have to tie the photos together to make words. For example, a photo of an eye, combined with a photo of a full glass of water would be eye + full = Eiffel. Get it? (For another example, check out last week’s puzzle.)

This week’s puzzle is two words and represents a vast natural attraction in North America.

Once you think you know the answer, post it below. You have until Monday, March 10, 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 Ronda Bergman, who correctly guessed that the pictogram spelled “Yellowstone Caldera.” Ronda has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.


– written and created by Dori Saltzman

hotel front deskA San Francisco-based frequent flier is fed up with reclining passengers and, quite frankly, so am I. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been unable to use my laptop or read a book without having to hold it up to my face because the person in front of me had pushed his or her seat back as far as it would go.

But although an October 2013 poll by flight search website Skyscanner found that just under 50 percent of fliers would like reclining seats to be removed from all airlines, IndependentTraveler.com readers are not so inclined.

The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room

In fact, when we recently asked our Facebook followers their thoughts on the subject, the majority of respondents reported that they always recline their seats, though most said they do so as politely as they can.

Wynne Gavin wrote, “I have a bad back and need to be slightly reclined. Since I am cognizant of the person behind me, I do so very slowly, carefully and just enough to be comfortable. I’ve never had it fully reclined.”

Ron Buckles and Trisha Hynes agreed. Recline slowly and just enough to be comfortable.

Clyde Roberts said he always reclines on long flights “for a while,” but never during refreshment service — and he eyes the person behind him first. “I check to see if the traveler behind me has reclined and if so I think he/she must be ok with me doing the same.”

And Randi Weiner said that although she understands there are issues with reclining seats “in this day and age when airlines are building planes with more and more seats jammed together,” she believes that if she paid for the seat and it has the ability to recline, then she will do so.

But even reclining passengers have had issues with other recliners.

“On a flight to JFK from Europe, the girl in [front] of me did a fast, full recline and I screamed, ‘Ouch!!’ when the [seat] hit my body,” Wynne Gavin wrote. “I simply pushed the seat forward a bit so I had some more room. She said, ‘I want to be comfortable.’ I said, ‘So do I.’ She had no choice but to compromise, as each time she reclined fully, I simply pushed it back up.”

10 Annoying Habits of Our Fellow Travelers

But Gavin added she does not think banning reclined seats is the answer. “Airlines removing a few rows and creating more space is.”

Since that won’t be happening any time soon, I’d like the airlines to take a look at Sue Armstrong’s response.

“How about a reclining section on the plane — spaced to accommodate it and part of seat selection and priced accordingly.”

What’s your preference — to recline or not to recline?

– written by Dori Saltzman

hotel front deskI usually love planning trips — second only to taking them! — but a few years ago, as I tried to hammer out a driving itinerary around the South Island of New Zealand, I found myself feeling unexpectedly stressed out. The problem: figuring out how long to spend in each place.

Would one night in Queenstown be enough, or should I tack on another? After driving three or four hours between stops, should we linger a little longer in each place before tackling the next chunk of our itinerary? Would we have enough time to detour through the Catlins in the far south?

Photos: 13 Best New Zealand Experiences

Around in circles I went, even though a few friends who’d been to New Zealand advised me not to worry about nailing down an itinerary. “You don’t need to book hotels in advance,” one said. “There are plenty of motels. Just do what you want during the day and find a place to stay wherever you happen to be.”

Her advice made perfect sense — but I didn’t take it. Here are three reasons why:

1. I’m a hopeless planner. While the idea of landing in a new place with no itinerary or bookings sounds like heaven to some travelers, it’s terrifying to me. I don’t have to plan out my day hour by hour, but the basics — activities I’m interested in, where I’ll lay my head — are a must.

2. Booking early gives me time to compare prices and read reviews. I’ve been burned in the past by last-second hotel choices that cost more than I wanted to pay or didn’t live up to my normal standards of service and cleanliness.

3. When I arrive in a new place, I want to spend my time exploring and doing things — not driving around searching for hotels that don’t look too sketchy.

33 Ways to Sleep Better at a Hotel

In the end, I compromised. I booked all my hotels before my trip, but made sure I would be able to cancel them without penalty if our itinerary changed. Fortunately, all my exhaustive research paid off. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

How do you feel about booking hotels in advance? Vote in our poll or leave a comment below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airport plane woman gate suitcase United Airlines generated a collective groan from travelers over the weekend by saying it will be strictly enforcing its carry-on baggage requirements, which limit each passenger to one personal item (like a purse, laptop or briefcase) and one carry-on bag with a maximum size of 9 x 14 x 22 inches.

The issue, however, isn’t with the size of the carry-on luggage allowed; other major carriers, including Delta and American Airlines/US Airways, have the same dimension restrictions. Instead, what’s upsetting is that United will now be charging checked-bag fees for any carry-ons that must be gate-checked due to noncompliance — even if passengers have used their carry-ons for years with no trouble fitting them in the overhead bins.

Of course it’s annoying when you see fellow flyers waddling onboard under the weight of a purse, a backpack, a computer bag and a carry-on that you can just tell exceeds regulation. But instead of making the boarding more efficient, charging for gate-checked bags is certain to slow down the process.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

United also charges for the first checked bag for each passenger, so it’s understandable that many would attempt to bring slightly larger carry-ons to avoid baggage fees. (Meanwhile, two popular U.S.-based airlines — JetBlue and Southwest Airlines — allow each passenger to check at least one checked bag at no charge. To boot, the carry-on dimensions for both lines exceed those of United and the other major carriers at 10 x 16 x 24 inches.)

Ultimately, United’s decision to charge for the gate-checking of carry-ons reminds us quite a bit of the policy of ultra-discounter Spirit Airlines: one personal item can be brought for free, but passengers are charged as much as $100 per bag — each way! — for the privilege of boarding with a carry-on that won’t fit under the seat in front of them.

At this point, it wouldn’t surprise us one bit if United eventually starts charging for things like bathroom privileges (don’t laugh — this was proposed a few years ago by European discounter Ryanair) and oxygen.

4 Signs You Have a Packing Problem

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

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 streets for strolling.

Would you rather…

… wander down this quiet cobblestone street in the Tuscan village of Sorano, Italy, or …

sorano italy tuscany flowers lane



… explore the vibrant city streets of Osaka, Japan?

osaka japan night street


Are you energized by bustling cities, or would you rather lose yourself in a quiet village? Sorano is one of Italy’s many medieval hill towns, home to several picturesque churches as well as a castle, Fortezza Orsini. Meanwhile, Osaka is Japan’s third largest city, boasting endless shops, major museums (including the National Museum of Art) and the country’s oldest Buddhist temple, Shitennoji.

11 Best Italy Experiences
12 Best Japan Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Here’s something fun to kick off your weekend. It’s a travel-themed picture puzzle. You just have to tie the photos together to make words. For example, a photo of an eye, combined with a photo of a full glass of water would be eye + full = Eiffel. Get it? (For another example, check out last week’s puzzle.)

This week’s puzzle is two words and represents a important natural attraction in Europe.

Once you think you know the answer, post it below. You have until Monday, March 3, 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 Caprice Kutz, who correctly guessed that the pictogram spelled “Danube Delta.” Caprice has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.


– written and created by Dori Saltzman