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The STM Drifter Backpack makes an attractive option for travelers who bring laptops, tablets or both when they hit the road. There’s room not just for your devices and chargers, but also for travel documents, a book or magazine for the plane, and even a change of clothes. You can also use the bag at home for commuting or hiking.

stm drifter backpack


After taking the bag for a quick spin, here’s what we liked — and didn’t like so much — about the STM Drifter.

What We Liked
It’s comfortable to wear. The back is well padded, and the adjustable back and sternum straps make it easy to distribute the bag’s weight.

It feels sturdy. Everything from the heavy-duty zippers to the thick, well-padded straps feels durable and well made.

It’s got lots of storage. There are three pockets on the front of the bag, including one fitted with slots for pens and other small items, and one that’s padded for a cell phone. On one side is a pocket for a water bottle or umbrella; on the other is a small zippered compartment. In the main section of the bag are a see-through mesh pocket (with zipper), one large open pocket, padded sleeves for a laptop and tablet, and a few other nooks and crannies. The sleeves for your devices “float” above the bottom of the main compartment, helping to protect them if you drop the pack.

It’s got a rain cover. Hidden away in zippered compartment at the bottom of the bag is a thin rain cover that you can pull up to protect the bag. (Mustard yellow isn’t the most attractive color for it, but its high visibility might be an advantage if you’re walking or biking on a gray, rainy day.)

It’s easy to pair with a wheeled suitcase. There’s a wide strap on the back that lets you slip the pack down the extendable handle of a rolling suitcase.

What We Didn’t Like
It won’t work for large laptops. The bag is meant for 15-inch computers, but will hold most 11- to 16-inch laptops. If your machine is larger, you’ll need to try a different bag.

The main compartment doesn’t unzip very far. This is a top-loading bag, and the zippers for the main compartment don’t extend too far down the sides, so it’s not as easy as it might be with other bags to reach in from the side to grab something, or to find things at the very bottom.

It’s expensive. At a price point of $135 to $140 (depending on where you buy it), the STM Drifter is pricier than most other laptop backpacks.

The Bottom Line
This is a good-quality laptop backpack that’s ideal for both traveling and commuting, but the price point may make it a stretch for some travelers.

You can buy the STM Drifter at the STM website or at Amazon.com.

How to Pack Efficiently: 8 Products That Can Help
12 Best Travel Gadgets for Any Trip

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Editorial Disclosure: Some products are sent to us free of charge to be considered for review. We choose products to review based on their relevance and usefulness to our readers. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not promise any editorial coverage, particularly positive reviews.

For the second year in a row, one hotel chain’s rewards program has been chosen as the provider of the best overall benefits to travelers.

hotel reception


Wyndham Rewards is the top overall hotel rewards program, according to a study by WalletHub, a website that provides credit advice to consumers. Wyndham’s program appeals just as much to those who travel infrequently as it does to those who travel a lot, and it ranked highly for its ease of achieving top membership status, number of hotels where rewards can be used and minimal blackout dates, among other attributes.

WalletHub pitted 12 hotel rewards programs against one other, examining 21 key metrics, including point values, blackout dates, brand exclusions and expiration policies. The top 10 brands, in order:

1. Wyndham Rewards
2. Best Western Rewards
3. Marriott Rewards
4. Club Carlson
5. La Quinta Returns
6. Hyatt Gold Passport
7. Drury Gold Key Club
8. Hilton HHonors
9. Choice Privileges
10. The Ritz-Carlton Rewards

La Quinta Returns was deemed to offer the best rewards value, offering up to $14.17 in rewards value for every $100 the hotel guest spends. Meanwhile, Best Western is the only brand among the 12 whose points do not expire if your account stays inactive for a while. The majority of hotel rewards points expire after 18 to 24 months of inactivity.

The study also found that the majority of the 12 brands have maintained or exceeded their programs’ value this year vs. last year.

“I think the typical consumer generally overvalues the benefits of hotel rewards program membership and underestimates the commitment required to obtain those benefits,” Professor Sung H. Ham of George Washington University wrote as part of the study.

Receiving free nights in a hotel is admittedly attractive, Ham said, but it requires a big commitment from the consumer. “Even if consumers are motivated to achieve the free night, consumers may still overvalue the rewards that can be obtained from being loyal,” Ham said. “Loyal consumers are less likely to engage in price comparisons and may ultimately end up paying more for each stay to earn the free night award.”

That being said, being a part of a hotel loyalty program can often provide non-monetary benefits, such as more personalized service, says Professor Lei Huang of the State University of New York at Fredonia.

Are you a member of a hotel rewards program?

7 Smart Reasons to Join a Hotel Rewards Program
Smart Tactics to Get More from Your Hotel Points
The Trouble with Hotel Reward Programs

–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, December 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 Laura, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery country was Argentina. Laura has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Check out what you might have missed around the travel world this week.

airplane passenger


British Airways Has Patented a ‘Digital Pill’ to Make Flying Easier — But Is It Really Necessary?
The Independent reports on a bizarre new patent filed by British Airways, involving passengers swallowing a small digital chip that will transmit information such as their body temperature and stomach acidity level in order to help the cabin crew better tend to their physical needs. Useful … or creepy?

The 10 Most Beautiful Places in Italy — as Voted by You
Rough Guides is here with your weekly dose of travel porn: droolworthy photos from around the Boot, from Florence to Cinque Terre. Swoon!

Meet Bette Nash: She Might Just Be the World’s Oldest Serving Flight Attendant
We enjoyed this fun profile from CNN of an 80-year-old flight attendant who’s been serving in the skies for nearly 60 years.

Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive
Caution: You may get hungry reading this essay from Roads & Kingdoms about “Brother Lamp,” a noodle expert in Chongqing, China. The author of the story joins Brother Lamp to try dozens of bowls of xiaomian, breakfast noodles made with various vegetables and meats.

Learn How This Couple Is Traveling the World on $24 a Day
Need a little travel inspiration? Check out this story from the Washington Post about a couple who have trimmed their travel budget down to a mere $12.20 per person, per day, thanks to tactics such as traveling by bus and searching for local guesthouses that don’t advertise online.

Online Booking Is, Like, So ’90s: The Humble Travel Agent Is Making a Comeback
NBC News reports on the resurgence of travelers using agents to book all or part of their trips. “It’s time versus money. A lot of people just don’t have the time or the expertise to plan a trip and do it well,” says one travel agent quoted in the story.

50 Reasons to Love the World
Get inspired as you click through this gorgeous gallery from BBC, in which various travelers share their photos and travel memories.

This week’s video takes us to Havana and beyond in a voyage around Cuba.


Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter

We recently introduced you to a travel startup whose staff designs long-weekend getaways without revealing your destination until just before you depart. All of the destinations on Pack Up + Go are medium or large cities in the United States and are usually just three or four hours from your departure point.

adventurous traveler leaping in the mountains


Apparently, that’s not intrepid enough for some travelers. Another new travel company called Jubel plans longer themed journeys to overseas locales.

Like Pack Up + Go, Jubel will design a custom trip based on your destinations of interest, preferred activities and budget. First you choose a theme — such as “party purist,” “culturist” or “chilled nature.” (These can be combined.) Then you fill out an extensive survey that details such preferences as hotel budget, scenery desires, transport options and how much (or how little) of the trip you want to be a mystery.

You can be as vague or as specific as you’d like in telling the staff where you want to go. If it’s mid-winter, you’re fed up with the cold and you just want to go “someplace warm,” that’s enough info for Jubel’s team to plan your vacation. But you can also be more specific — museum hopping in southern Europe, for example, or a rain forest destination in Ecuador.

After conducting research about your trip and curating a personalized experience, your Jubel travel consultant will send you at least one proposal, purposely vague enough that the trip will be a surprise (if that’s what you request) but detailed enough for you to make a decision. If you decide you want to make a booking, you’ll need to pay a deposit of 50 percent of the trip’s estimated total cost, which varies based on the length of your trip and your budget constraints.

“I never realized how mentally taxing doing all those travel details [was] until I was completely freed of them,” one traveler, Filip Victor, says in a testimonial on Jubel’s website.

Once you’re paid up, Jubel provides travelers with a sealed envelope revealing your destination. If that’s the maximum amount of surprise your nerves can handle, Jubel can provide the full itinerary too.

But if you’re more adventurous than that, Jubel will provide a pack of sealed envelopes to be opened during your trip. They contain details about different legs of your adventure, so the “Mission Impossible”-esque surprises continue as your trip progresses … should you choose to accept them.

The Healing Power of Travel
12 Ways to Be More Spontaneous When You Travel

Would you try Jubel?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

We recently published a slideshow of the 9 Most Boring Cities in the World, with picks including Frankfurt, Ottawa and Casablanca.

ottawa at night


Do you agree or disagree with our list? What are the most boring cities you’ve ever visited? Share your opinions in the comments below.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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.” Multi-word cities or countries are scrambled into one word, so “San Juan” might appear as SJAANUN. (Hint: This week there is one multi-word city.) Identify all four mystery cities to win.

GVAENE, LRTWEIZDNAS

HDOA, ARTQA

BOTOEGMYNA, AJAICMA

AOLGS, RIEINAG


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

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND

DOHA, QATAR

MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA

LAGOS, NIGERIA


— created by Sarah Schlichter

Read up on the news and stories you may have missed this week from around the travel world.

travelers on segways


The Inventions That Ruined Travel
Have a laugh over this tongue-in-cheek list of travel abominations from the Telegraph, featuring things like Segways, wax museums and “ride-on” suitcases. Our favorite is the section on selfie sticks, or “this narcissistic weapon of Satan.”

Otherworldly Silence
Warning: After clicking through this stunning Maptia photo essay about Antarctica, you may find yourself researching trips to the world’s most remote continent.

From Grand Hotel to Microhotel: How Your Stay Has Changed in 200 Years
Conde Nast Traveler surveys two centuries of hotel trends, starting with the grand properties that sprang up in 19th-century Europe and extending through the chain hotels of the early 20th century and the hip boutiques of the 1980s and 1990s. The author even offers a vision of what hotels might look like in the future.

29 Travel Hacks That Even Frequent Fliers Don’t Know
Insider rounds up some clever tips that go beyond the usual travel advice, including grabbing a cab in your airport’s departure zone instead of at arrivals and keeping a small waterproof bag packed at all times with necessary chargers and cables.

Fake Service Animals and Why Airline Passengers Are Upset
South Florida’s Sun Sentinel reports on a growing trend: the rise in service and emotional support animals on planes. Some travelers are abusing the laws requiring airlines to accept service animals by pretending that their pets are traveling with them for emotional support when they’re really just trying to evade the rules and fees for bringing a pet onboard.

5 Ways Travel for Frequent Fliers Got Worse in 2016
Skift offers a glum look at the air travel landscape, which in 2016 featured rising admission fees to airline lounges and the advent of “basic economy” fares.

12 Poignant Images of Tribal Peoples Around the World
Rough Guides showcases the photos that will appear in the 2017 calendar of Survival International, an advocacy group for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world. These images capture these people’s human dignity and endangered lifestyle.

This week’s video is a mesmerizing peek into the Kyushu region of Japan.


12 Best Japan Experiences
18 Best Airport Hacks

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Many modern rental cars offer sophisticated “infotainment” systems that can link up to your smartphone via Bluetooth, allowing you to make hands-free calls, stream your music through the vehicle’s speakers and use your favorite map app for navigation. But these systems can pose a security risk by storing your personal data, including contacts, call logs, text messages and the places you visit during your rental.

smartphone in car


“Unless you delete that data before you return the car, other people may view it, including future renters and rental car employees or even hackers,” cautions the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

So how can you enjoy the convenience of your car’s infotainment system without compromising your security? Collin Ikim of Magrenta, a Romanian car rental company, says he always shows clients how to wipe their data from the system before returning their vehicles. “Most people return [their] rental car at the last moment, when they’re already in a hurry,” he says. “You should give yourself time to remove the personal data stored in the car. It’s a matter of minutes.”

Ikim recommends going into the settings menu of the infotainment system. “There you’ll find a list of devices that have been paired: locate yours and follow the prompts to delete it. If you used the car’s navigation system, clear your location history.”

If all you need is to charge your phone, both Ikim and the FTC recommend using an adapter to power the device via the car’s cigarette lighter rather than connecting via USB to the infotainment system, which might capture your data automatically.

If you do decide to use the system, you can usually choose which data you want to share. Keep your permissions as limited as possible to avoid putting information unnecessarily at risk.

For those renting a car in their own local area, Ikim offers one final suggestion: “Consider setting your home address to a nearby intersection. If strangers get … access to your car, they won’t know the precise directions to your specific home address.”

11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling
Avoiding Identity Theft: A Cautionary Tale at 35,000 Feet

— written by Sarah Schlichter

A new app that debuted last month allows you make calls anywhere on the planet for free.

And by free I mean “in exchange for your free time” — because that’s what you’ll need to give up in order to earn enough credits to make a worthwhile call to a friend or family member overseas.

man on cell phone and laptop at cafe


WhatsCall — riffing off the name of the unrelated free text messaging app WhatsApp — permits you to call any type of telephone in 230 countries for no cost. Other free calling services like Skype require that both you and the recipient of your call be on the same program, but WhatsCall can connect you to a landline, mobile or online number.

To be able to make a call, you need to earn credits by completing tasks mostly related to advertising. For example, by spending 30 seconds watching a video promoting a free casino gaming app, you’ll earn 402 credits. If you sign up for a big box discount shopping club, you could earn 4,732 credits. You can also earn credits by clicking on a “daily check-in button,” by referring friends to the app and completing other tasks. The app founders say each user can earn more than 2,000 credits a day, providing more than 30 minutes of free calls.

With 1,200 credits in my new account — 1,000 for signing up for a free account and 200 for clicking on ads — I tested out the service by calling my mother-in-law in Sweden.

How much time would that get me? I tried to figure it out in advance of my call, but the provided list of rates for Sweden was confusing. The list showed seven options, ranging from 20 credits a minute to 450 per minute, depending on where in Sweden I was calling and the type of phone I was dialing. That’s a big disparity, and the confusing list didn’t allow me to predict how much time I’d have.

It wasn’t until I dialed my mother-in-law’s phone number and hit “send” that I discovered the rate would be 440 credits a minute — the stated cost for calling a mobile line even though I dialed her landline. Based on that, I could speak to her for around two minutes and 40 seconds, but somehow we spoke for a full minute longer than that. Perhaps there’s a grace period?

After I hung up, the math didn’t work out. I started with 1,200 credits, but the total cost based on the displayed rate should have been 1,320. Yet my call record shows the total cost as 1,760 credits. So I was nowhere closer to knowing how many credits I’d need the next time I call her.

I reached out to WhatsCall to ask about the credit disparity. A spokesperson told me the company had never encountered this issue and offered me free credits as a courtesy. She also noted that the company offers so many different rates because it works with numerous local providers.

On the positive side, the clarity of the call, which I made via my home wireless network, was high quality — as crisp and clear as if I were using a landline phone and dialing my next-door neighbor. The app has a dial pad, and you can select the country you’re calling to automatically add in the country code. That’s a nice convenience, especially if you only have a local number and aren’t sure of the country code. And caller ID on the receiver’s end shows your normal mobile phone number.

WhatsCall is available for free for iPhone and Android devices.

Would you try WhatsCall?

Avoid Smartphone Sticker Shock: How to Pay Less Overseas
11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma