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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, June 20, 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 Alec, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Greenland. Alec has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Catch up on the week’s best reads from around the web.

tokyo japan


Japanese “Naked Restaurant” to Ban Overweight Diners
A new nude restaurant will open in Tokyo next month, but overweight diners need not apply, reports Yahoo! The restaurant won’t let in anyone who’s more than 15 kilograms (33 pounds) over the average weight for their height. Also on the no-go list: anyone under 18 or over 60 years old.

Monique, the Hen Who Is Sailing Around the World
This BBC News story will brighten your day. It features a 24-year-old French sailor who’s traveling around the world with a chicken named Monique, who has learned to paddleboard and windsurf during their globetrotting adventures.

The Joy of Instagram
The Atlantic reports on a new study that suggests taking photos of our experiences actually helps us enjoy them more. “It’s not the act of photo-taking itself … that leads to that enjoyment,” says the article. “It’s the kind of mental curation that is required when you’re thinking about what is worth documenting in the first place.”

How Travel Treats My Anxiety Better Than Antidepressants
A writer for The Week discovers that even though traveling is stressful, something about the combination of experiencing new things and relinquishing control helps calm her anxiety.

Airlines Race to Cuba, Overcoming Major Hurdles
With U.S. airlines recently being approved to run commercial flights to Cuba, the Associated Press takes a fascinating look at the work that goes into making those flights happen. The airlines are tackling challenges such as collecting baggage fees in a country where U.S. credit cards don’t work and moving people efficiently through a check-in process at airports without self-service kiosks.

How Visiting a Polluted City Is Bad for Your Health
Conde Nast Traveler reports that even short-term exposure to ozone (smog) and airborne particles in polluted cities can cause breathing problems, chest pain and possibly even more serious health issues.

FAA Rules Out Requiring Psychological Testing for Airline Pilots
After a mentally disturbed Germanwings pilot deliberately crashed a plane full of passengers last year, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has decided not to require psychological testing for airline pilots, reports CBS News. Instead, the agency advocates a number of other measures to help pilots with mental health.

Zika Fears and Political Chaos Keeping Rio Olympics Affordable
If you’re still considering a trip to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, it could be cheaper than you think, reports the New York Times. Thanks to political upheaval in the Brazilian government and the prevalence of the Zika virus, many people aren’t so sure they want to go to the Games — which means decent prices for those who do.

The maker of this week’s video describes his trip to Vietnam as “2 weeks, 5 friends, 1500 kilometers, 5 diarrheas, dozen cups of Vietnamese coffee, 1 mud bath, 2 overturned kayaks, 2 pairs of custom made shoes, 1 pair of custom made trousers.”


11 Best Vietnam Experiences
12 Travel Photography Mistakes to Avoid

— written by Sarah Schlichter

With germs lurking everywhere from airplane tray tables to ticketing machines at train stations, hand sanitizer is an essential part of any smart traveler’s bag of tricks. After all, you’re on vacation — who’s got time to get sick?

touch sanitizing germblock


I recently tested a new type of hand sanitizer called Touch, and it’s a little different than the usual antibacterial gel most of us pack for a trip. First off, it’s a mist rather than a gel or lotion, so it comes in a little aerosol spray can. Secondly, it doesn’t contain any alcohol, relying instead on a main ingredient called benzalkonium chloride to kill germs, bacteria, fungi and viruses. Finally, it’s formulated to stay on the hands rather than evaporating, protecting against germs for up to six hours.

Here’s what I liked and disliked about the product during our test on a recent trip to Europe.

The Good
We didn’t get sick: My husband and I used the spray at least every other day during our two-week trip, and we came home healthy. I admit that one trip isn’t exactly a scientific study, and it’s impossible to know whether we would’ve gotten sick if we hadn’t used Touch (or if we’d used a different hand sanitizer instead), but it’s still a good sign.

It’s a convenient travel size: Touch comes in a 1-ounce container that is easy to fit into a purse or daypack and will get through a security checkpoint in your quart-size bag of liquids and gels.

The long-lasting protection offers security: I liked that I didn’t need to keep reapplying Touch every hour or two.

The Bad
It’s not very discreet: One nice thing about using hand-sanitizing gel is that you can squeeze a dab of it into your hand without making noise. There’s no avoiding the sound of the aerosol spray when applying Touch — which made us a little a little self-conscious when we were trying to sanitize our hands in public places like a plane or a nice restaurant. (A Touch spokesperson tells us that spraying the product rather than rubbing it on helps ensure quicker and fuller coverage.)

It doesn’t necessarily leave hands feeling soft: Although Touch contains “skin-softening essential oils” (according to a product fact sheet), my husband and I didn’t love the way our hands felt immediately after spraying. It was an odd, almost powdery texture, similar to the way your hands might feel after pulling off a pair of latex gloves. Luckily, it didn’t last long.

It’s not available online: Touch is currently only available at Walgreens pharmacies. (Other sales channels are in the works.) The recommended retail price is $5.99 per 1-ounce container. Touch comes in four scents: ocean mist, tropical breeze, mint green tea aloe and unscented.

Want to give Touch a try? We’re giving away a sample of the mint green tea aloe product. Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Thursday, June 30. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the can of Touch. 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.

Avoiding the Airplane Cold
18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling

— written by Sarah Schlichter

I arrived in Granada, Spain, during the height of tourist season and without a room reservation. After lugging my bag from hostel to hostel for four hours, I finally found a place with availability.

The only room left was a converted closet with a micro-bed. A single lightbulb dangled from the ceiling. To provide air, the proprietor had cut a “window” in the wall, which was covered in a shredded, rusty mesh screen. The window was opposite the shared bathroom, and it seemed like everyone who walked by poked their strange faces through my window, like Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” scene in “The Shining.” I was up all night staring at that nightmarish hole.

creepy hotel


If you travel independently, you have to expect a few worst-night sleeps like that. Frequent travelers shared with us some of the scariest, filthiest, coldest, loudest and weirdest nights they’ve ever had on the road.

A Fungus Among Us
During his first around-the-world trip, travel blogger Marek Bron of Indie Traveller found himself in Chiang Rai, Thailand, without a place to stay. “Everywhere was booked out. So I ended up in this obscure hostel that, to this day, remains the worst place I ever stayed,” he said. “It had the ambience of a World War II bunker. Concrete walls, metal lockers, no windows.”

The grimy shower hadn’t been cleaned in months (at least). Not only were there dozens of empty shampoo bottles in it in it, but an apple-sized mushroom was also growing in the corner.

“If you can’t be bothered to at least get rid of the giant mushroom in the shower, you truly don’t care,” Bron said.

Not a Lot of Sleep Happening Here
Writer Ethan Gelber of The Travel Word and his wife arrived by bus in town along the Zambia-Malawi border well after dark. Having little electricity, the unfamiliar town was pitch black. “We didn’t know how far we were from anywhere, so we went to the only place with lights and begged for a room,” Gelber said.

Turns out, it was a brothel.

A Tumble-Dry Night
Emily Harley-Reid of International Expeditions was on a primitive camping trip in the Australian Outback. One night it was so cold that she and her fellow campers relocated in the middle of the night to the campsite’s laundry room. They cuddled up together on the floor around dryers with the doors open.

“We pooled our change, feeding the dryers every hour to stay warm,” she said.

The story had a happy ending. “One guy actually married his sleeping bag buddy from that night. They have two kids now and live in Iowa.”

Creature Comforts
Adventurist Johnny Ward of One Step 4Ward was exhausted after traveling two straight days from Ethiopia to Khartoum, Sudan. He took a room in the first guesthouse he could find. Bad idea.

“It was FILTHY,” Ward wrote in an email. “We flipped the mattresses to see maggots crawling under the bed. Disgusting, but at 1 a.m. in Sudan, you’re happy to have a roof.”

The squirmy insects weren’t the only roommates Ward and his friend had that night. An hour later, they discovered a full-occupancy rats’ nest under the bed. “We managed to switch rooms, [had] the worst night’s sleep imaginable and checked out at 6 a.m,” Ward said.

Strange Noises in the Jungle
Travel blogger Caz Makepeace of Y Travel trekked all day through the Sumatran jungle to see orangutans. Nighttime was memorable, too, but for the wrong reasons: freezing temperatures despite being on the Equator and a tarp that dropped rain on her all night.

“To top it off, our guide told us stories of tiger encounters before we went to sleep,” Makepeace recalled. “During the night, we heard a gigantic crashing [sound] in the jungle, and our guide stayed up for the remainder of the night holding a big knife.”

Don’t Rock the Boat
Dutch blogger Maaike van Kuijk of Travellous World thought it would be an exceptional experience to sleep aboard a riverboat-based hotel in Maastricht, Netherlands. It was anything but, with partiers boarding at 3 a.m. and whooping it up until sunrise, not to mention the tiny bedrooms with dirty sheets, an unclean bathroom and a lousy breakfast.

“I learned my lesson back then: Always read the reviews before you decide on staying somewhere,” van Kuijk said.

Shower Surprise
Writer Dan Miller of Points with a Crew relayed this ominous tale from a trip to Mobile, Alabama: “The front desk agent behind a barred window told us he had no rooms left, despite our reservation. He told us that he could sell us, and I quote, ‘a room with something wrong with it.'”

Miller bravely took the room and found out that the tub “was completely covered in purple goo.” Needless to say, he skipped his morning shower.

The Worst Can Also Be the Best
Sustainable tourism expert Warren Green’s worst night of sleep was also one of his favorite travel experiences. While trying to cross a river in a remote region on the border of Tanzania and Kenya, his vehicle got lodged in mud up to the axles. A storm was coming, “and the roar of a lion reminded us that a walk … would be foolish,” Green said. He and his guide had no choice but to spend the night.

They gathered wood, siphoned a splash of fuel from the gas tank to start a fire and slept on the floor mats from the van. Lightning flashed in the sky.

“I lay awake drinking in this most uncomfortable night,” Green reminisced. “It was beautiful.”

When the Hotel Guest Next Door Won’t Shut Up
33 Ways to Sleep Better at a Hotel

What was your worst night’s sleep while traveling?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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.” Identify all four mystery cities to win.

SOOL, AYWORN

AMRULUPUALK, ALSYMAIA

CCIAHOG, EDSTEATIUNST

VAANHA, UABC


Enter your list of unscrambled cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, June 13, 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 Maria Beatriz, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the puzzle answers below.

OSLO, NORWAY

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA

CHICAGO, UNITED STATES

HAVANA, CUBA


— created by Sarah Schlichter

Check out the most interesting travel stories you may have missed this week.

american airlines planes


American Airlines Just Made a Big Change Most Passengers Will Hate
American Airlines has fallen in line with the other major carriers in the U.S. with the latest update to its frequent flier program, reports Yahoo! Finance. Travelers will now accumulate miles based not on the distance flown but on how much they paid for their ticket.

Why I Quit My Job to Travel the World
Have a laugh at this satirical essay from the New Yorker, which pokes fun at trust fund kids who drop everything to travel around the world. “Of course, this ‘no reservations’ life style isn’t for everyone,” writes the fictional narrator. “Sometimes it’s difficult to get even one bar of cell service, which makes Instagramming more gelato a real struggle.”

The Latest Travel Luxury: Not Going
Quartz reports that there’s been an increase in the purchase of “cancel anytime” travel insurance this year, probably in response to concerns about terrorism and the Zika virus. This type of coverage costs a little more but gives travelers peace of mind by allowing them to back out of their trip for any reason without losing money.

The Moroccan Scam That Wasn’t
BBC Travel details an encounter with Moroccan locals that could have turned dangerous — would you hop in a car with two strangers to drive into the desert after dark? — but instead turned into a memorable evening at an Arab-Berber wedding.

Had a Rental Car Accident? Here’s What You Need to Know
Conde Nast Traveler digs into the thorny issue of rental car coverage. Just how much does your credit card protect you in case of an accident? Turns out it might be less than you think.

Common Taxi Scams, and How to Avoid Them
USA Today identifies seven ways you could get ripped off on a cab ride, from broken meters to drivers claiming they don’t have enough change.

Get a glimpse of Bali’s healing energy in this week’s featured video.


10 Best Indonesia Experiences
Money Safety Tips for Travelers

— written by Sarah Schlichter

When I told people I was taking a vacation to Slovenia, the most common response I got was, “…Where?” The second most common response: “Why?”

To answer the questions in order: Slovenia is a small central European country bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. And I went there because I was inspired by photos like these:

lake bohinj slovenia


Bohinij, the country’s largest lake, is part of Triglav National Park.

ljubljana slovenia


The capital city, Ljubljana, is home to a picturesque and colorful Old Town overlooking the Ljubjanica River.

predjama castle slovenia


The spectacularly situated Predjama Castle is built into the side of a cliff and connects to a network of caves.

vintgar gorge slovenia


Visitors can hike a boardwalk path alongside an emerald river at the bottom of Vintgar Gorge.

piran slovenia


When you walk through Piran, you feel as though you’ve stepped into Italy; this seaside town was ruled by Venice for centuries.

gibanica cake slovenia


Gibanica, a traditional Slovenian dessert, is made with apples, poppy seeds, wanuts and cheese.

Slovenia Trip Reviews by Real Travelers
Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide

Are you interested in visiting Slovenia?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

“Backpacking Europe” used to refer solely to travel with an oversized canvas sack strapped across your shoulders, with nights spent in a youth hostel bunk bed. Today, “backpacking” is more of a mindset than an actual act, says James Feess, author of the book “The Savvy Backpacker’s Europe on a Budget.”

Originally from the U.S. Midwest, James and his wife Susan have spent time living in Paris and traveling throughout Europe. Their website The Savvy Backpacker offers advice for independent travelers who literally backpack across Europe and those who apply a backpacker mentality to travel comfortably yet budget-consciously.

james and susan feess paris savvy backpacker


We recently chatted with James and Susan, who are now in New York City.

IndependentTraveler.com: Is there an age limit on backpacking?
James and Susan Feess:
No way! We’ve seen backpackers of all ages. The last time we were staying in a hostel in London we met a 70-something Australian man who was traveling around Europe for multiple months.

IT: Why do you think most people outgrow the backpacker mindset?
JF & SF:
It’s no secret that most backpackers tend to be young and broke, so they do everything as cheaply as possible. It’s natural for people to upgrade their travel styles as they get older, start earning more money and get accustomed to a better standard of living. However, a lot of people maintain the backpacker mindset regardless of income level or age.

Top 25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

IT: You’re now in your early 30s. How has the mindset changed for you both since you first started backpacking?
JF & SF:
We find now that we focus on value and not cost — and that’s a big difference. For example, you can take a bus across Europe very cheaply. However, it takes much longer than the train. So it really isn’t a great value because it’s costing you time, which is more valuable than money. Now we take the train whenever we travel because the extra cost is a good value. The same principle applies to food, lodging, entertainment, [almost] everything.

IT: What are some of the non-monetary benefits to traveling like a backpacker?
JF & SF:
Traveling on a budget helps get you closer to living like local. Staying in a five-star hotel and eating at high-end restaurants is about as far away from local living as you can get because most locals don’t do that. However, budget travelers have to stay in more modest accommodation and eat where the locals eat because that’s the best value and cheapest option. Personally, we prefer renting a modest apartment. This gives you an instant connection to a neighborhood.

IT: Do you travel like a backpacker 100 percent of the time? Any indulgences you want to confess?
JF & SF:
We try sticking to our backpacker roots but we do “splurge” a bit more these days. Back when we were in our early 20s we would try surviving on as little food as possible, but now we have a nicer meal once or twice. Sometimes we’ll go really crazy and buy the $11 bottle of wine instead of the $6 bottle!

Having a little more money does open new doors to better experience a culture. For example, we’ve taken a few cooking classes in France, and this is a great hands-on way to experience the culture that we couldn’t afford on a backpacker’s budget. Another possibility: specialized walking tours. They can get a little expensive, but they give you so much information that you’d never know otherwise.

IT: Tell us about some of your favorite places you’ve visited over the last year.
JF & SF:
While it isn’t Europe, we actually just got back from traveling to Cape Town, South Africa. It was an amazing trip and we were able to “live it up” since everything is really cheap there. It was probably our most luxurious trip. For example, we got a really nice steak meal for $15 and alcohol was only $3 to $4 in a restaurant. We ended up staying nearly two weeks.

IT: Aside from occasional trips elsewhere, you tend to focus on Europe. Are there any spots in Europe you haven’t visited but want to?
JF & SF:
We still haven’t visited Iceland. It’s at the top of our list. Unfortunately, Iceland isn’t cheap. So we’ll keep saving until we have enough. We want to spend a lot more time in Italy and Spain. And Croatia. And Berlin in the summer.

Quiz: Which European City Are You?
Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide

— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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 is located in the same alpine town as a more famous royal residence.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, June 6, 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 Jeff McDowell, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Germany’s Hohenschwangau Castle. Jeff 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

Check out the travel news and features you might have missed this week.

buffalo at Yellowstone national park


Park Service Considers Visitor Caps, Expects Record Crowds
The U.S. National Park Service is examining ways to better control crowds in the most popular parks, the Associated Press reports. “We realize that currently we’re on an unsustainable course in terms of demands for visitation,” one Yellowstone National Park official said.

America Issues a Travel Alert Covering Europe
Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of State issued a travel alert for anyone planning to visit Europe. The Economist questions the sensibility of issuing an alert for an entire continent.

Strikes in France Causing Major Rail Travel Disruptions
Nearly half of all high-speed and regional trains in France didn’t run June 1 because of a strike that could last well into next week. Rail worker unions are protesting working conditions and changes to labor rules, Travel Pulse reports. The strike is also affecting trains to Spain and Italy.

World’s Longest and Deepest Rail Tunnel, Through Swiss Alps, Opens
On the same day France suffered from train troubles, Switzerland celebrated the opening of the world’s largest and deepest rail tunnel. Seventy years in the making, the Gotthard Base Tunnel stretches 35 miles through the Swiss Alps and is expected to speed up travel times through Europe, the New York Times says.

5 Times Travel Insurance Won’t Help a Vacation Gone Wrong
It’s always good to know what your travel insurance will cover. But you can’t possibly anticipate all scenarios. This Fox News article reminds you of a handful of possibilities that aren’t covered by trip insurance.

7 Travel Apps for Making Your Summer Vacation Plans
A handful of smartphone apps will make summer travel a lot easier, Mashable suggests. They include an app that maps out a route based on your interests, an electronic travel journal and an app that keeps you updated on airport security wait times.

Help Us Create the Ultimate Road Trip Playlist for Memorial Day Weekend
If you’re going on a driving trip this summer, add 30 songs from The Washington Post’s crowdsourced “ultimate road trip playlist” to your soundtrack. The eclectic mix includes Aretha Franklin, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead and Lucinda Williams.

Rule No. 1 of traveling with a baby: Don’t lose the baby. So says a New Zealander dad in his amusing video “10 Ways to Travel with a Baby.” The video was filmed in Rotorua on the North Island of New Zealand, with the Museum of Art and History, geothermal pools, redwood forests and Mt. Ngongotaha as backdrops.


— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma