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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

bangkok skytrainWe all know that many of the world’s largest metropolitan areas — New York, London, Tokyo — have such comprehensive public transportation systems that you wouldn’t even think about renting your own car.

Luckily for the expense-averse, this list includes much of Europe. Not only do cities such as Berlin and Barcelona have comprehensive subway and bus systems in town, you can easily connect to nearby attractions in the countryside, making day trips more accessible.

But what about those smaller cities, the places that — at first glance — might seem to require a rental vehicle to make your vacation worthwhile? While I’m not averse to getting a car when it’s a necessity (in, say, Los Angeles), I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past few years by being able to go car-free in some locations you might not expect.

Miami, Florida
To me, South Beach always personified Miami — and to get the full feel, there’s nothing like tooling past its art deco architecture in an equally retro rental (preferably a convertible). But hip neighborhoods such as Wynwood, Brickell Village and the Design District have made staying downtown more appealing — and public transportation options such as the Metromover and Miami Trolley mean you won’t miss much. Best of all? Both are free.

Where You Can Go: Bayside Market Place, Mary Brickell Village, Bicentennial Park, Museum Park (home to the new Perez Art Museum), and American Airlines Arena are all on the Metromover route (you can reach Wynwood and the Design District easily by bus from the Adrienne Arsht Center). Trolleys can take you to Marlins Park, Coral Gables and, yes, Miami Beach.

Where You Can’t: You’ll still need a car to spot alligators in the Everglades or catch a Key West sunset.

Train Travel Deals Around the World

Bangkok, Thailand
This busy Asian city has traffic jams so notorious that a separate class of vehicle has emerged to weave in and out of them (tuk tuks). Its elevated Skytrain has signs in English as well as air-conditioning, a must if you’re not used to the humidity. Also consider the Chao Phraya river, which winds through Bangkok; it’s often the quickest route between two places. Water taxis and traditional khlong (canal) boats are available.

Where You Can Go: Wat Arun, Grand Palace and Wat Prakeaw, Jim Thompson’s House, Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Khao San Road (if you want to mix with other tourists).

Where You Can’t: The famous World War II site, the bridge over the River Kwai, is in Kanchanaburi, about 90 minutes from Bangkok. While buses do run there, you’re better off hiring a driver or guide. Whatever you do, don’t take the train; it’s a local, meaning the conditions are basic (you’re likely to share a wooden seat with chickens), and it can take up to five hours.

San Antonio, Texas
If you’re deep in the heart of Texas, you expect cities with suburbs that sprawl for miles (we’re talking to you, Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth) — which is what makes San Antonio such a pleasant surprise. The Riverwalk, originally a WPA project, has been extended so it hooks up with the 10-mile Mission Reach trail. Rent bikes in trendy King William and make a day of it. The central hub of the Riverwalk is an attraction unto itself, with restaurants and bars aplenty (boat rides are fun too).

Where You Can Go: All five of San Antonio’s missions, including the Alamo; Pearl Brewery, San Antonio Art Museum, restaurants and bars.

Where You Can’t: The vineyards of nearby Hill Country require external transportation (preferably a private driver so you can taste at will).

St. Petersburg, Russia
The subway system in St. Petersburg is a major tourist sight for a reason. Conceived during Stalin’s tenure, the stations were considered “the people’s palaces” and given the design to match. You don’t even have to have a destination in mind to enjoy the elaborate chandeliers, marble floors and columns, and Soviet-era symbols found along the lines (fun fact: this is also the world’s deepest subway system).

Where You Can Go: Nevsky Prospekt, Church of the Spilled Blood, Hermitage, major theaters (for operas and ballet), and Peter and Paul Fortress. Peter the Great’s grand palace, Peterhof, is reachable by hydrofoil.

Where You Can’t: Catherine’s Palace, with the famous Amber Room, is in Pushkin (about 15 miles away) and is only open limited hours for people not in groups. It’s best to go with a guide.

Top Tips for Fighting Jet Lag

Seattle, Washington
Known for its eco ethic, Seattle should have a better public transportation system than it does (while a light rail connects SEA-TAC airport with downtown, it regularly draws complaints for its geographical limitations). Luckily, the bus routes make up for it.

Where You Can Go: Pike Place Market and original Starbucks, Pioneer Square, Space Needle and Seattle Center (home to EMP Museum, the Pacific Science Center and Chilhuly Garden and Glass), both stadiums, Capitol Hill, Alki Beach (by water taxi), Bainbridge Island (by Washington State Ferry).

Where You Can’t: To go hiking in any of the mountain range parks that surround Seattle — Mt. Rainier, the Cascades or the Olympics — you’ll need a car.

– written by Chris Gray Faust

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 holidays being celebrated today, March 17.

Would you rather…

… join the St. Patrick’s Day revelry in Ireland, or …

st patrick's day parade cork ireland



… throw brightly colored powder to celebrate Holi in India?

holi festival india


St. Patrick’s Day, which honors the patron saint of Ireland, is celebrated with parades, green clothing and the odd drink or two by the Irish diaspora around the world. Holi is a Hindu festival that honors the coming of spring with frolicking and the flinging of colorful powder; it’s observed primarily in India and other South Asian nations.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

This week, we’re introducing a new type of travel brainteaser: a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five words that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Here’s an example:

cities in italy


To solve this puzzle, you would fill in five Italian cities that start with the given letters. Here’s one possible solution:

cities in italy


Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter; you could have filled in Siena instead of Salerno or Parma instead of Pisa. As long as your response fits into the given category, we’ll count it.

Ready to try it yourself? Here’s this week’s challenge:

caribbean capitals


Enter your list of cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, March 17, 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 Jeannette, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Check out her winning entry below.

caribbean capitals


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

– written and created by Sarah Schlichter and Dori Saltzman

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