In early October, I embarked on a weeklong family vacation around the southwestern United States. This loaded itinerary promised hiking, rock climbing, swimming and a family reunion spread across five cities, three states and eight days. While I’m generally an efficient packer, I was having difficulty narrowing down my clothing options and keeping myself organized this time around.
Normally, I’m skeptical of any packing cubes or aids. I’m a bare-bones traveler who has managed just fine with rolling, folding and cramming in the past. So when I was given the EzPacking Starter Set, a collection of four packing cubes in various sizes, I can’t say I expected much. If anything, I figured they’d complicate the packing process and add unnecessary bulk to my bag.
I was wrong. In fact, these little plastic cubes worked so well for me that I ordered another set shortly after this trip.
I used the large cube (which measures 16″ x 10.3″ x 4″) for casual wear, the medium (12″ x 10.3″ x 4″) for athletic clothes and running gear, the small bag (10.3″ x 6″ x 4″) for my bathing suits and intimates, and the extra-small bag (6″ x 6″ x 2.5″) for toiletries. When detouring to Page, Arizona for two days in the middle of the trip, I took the largest cube as an overnight duffel rather than lugging my full-size suitcase all over the Southwest.
Altogether these bags nestled nicely into my suitcase, maximized space and worked well with our multi-faceted and activity-intensive itinerary.
What We Liked: The EzPacking organizers are like the Mary Poppins bag of travel. These little things don’t look like much on the outside, but they can fit a lot. For instance, one of the larger bags comfortably held nine warm-weather outfits and a light jacket. (Disclaimer: I’m a petite, 5’0″ female.)
Beyond compactness, these bags are also lightweight and sturdy. They added very little extra weight to our luggage (20 ounces), and held their shape no matter how much stuff I crammed in around them. Unlike some other packing cubes, EzPacking organizers are transparent on four out of six sides, so it’s easy to see what you’ve packed where.
What We Didn’t Like: While the cubes are compact and convenient, they will take up the bulk of your bag. Because of this, I had difficulty squeezing in some last-minute souvenirs that were too delicate to fit elsewhere.
Another downside is that these cubes make it dangerously easy to overpack. I had to transfer several items from my suitcase to my carry-on just to keep my bag within the airline’s 50-pound limit.
Bottom Line: While a bit on the pricey side for a set of four (they retail for $48), the EzPacking organizers are a great asset for people with packing OCD, or travelers looking for extra organization.
EzPacking organizers can be ordered individually or purchased online in one of several bundles. They come in different colors and are TSA-approved (in fact, the smallest bag is perfect for TSA’s liquid and gel regulations). You can buy them on the EzPacking website or on Amazon.com.
Want a chance to win our gently used EzPacking Starter Set? We’re giving it away. Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, November 9, 2016. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the Starter Set. 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.
Two travel startups have come up with distinctive ways for travelers to earn rewards merely by booking trips.
At a time when frequent flier miles and other points-earning opportunities are harder than ever to manage and use, Upside and TRVL are refreshingly innovative options for accruing bonuses for purchasing airfare and hotels.
Upside rewards you with gift cards for being flexible with your travel plans. When you book airfare and hotel rooms, which the company offers as a package, Upside will offer you gift cards to Amazon, eBay, Home Depot, Whole Foods and dozens of other stores. Willing to fly during less desirable hours, or to stay at a hotel a little farther from the city center? You’ll earn even more in gift card rewards.
I priced out a weeklong trip to Madrid, flying from New York and staying at a modest hotel near the Royal Palace. The total came to $1,440, and I would earn $314 in gift cards. If you see the gift cards as a rebate, that’s a 22 percent discount.
Upside, founded by Priceline.com founder Jay Walker, is currently taking bookings for flights from New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles, with 40 international destinations currently available. More will be added in the coming months.
Meanwhile, the premise behind the soon-to-be-operational TRVL is to allow individuals to earn commissions from hotel, air, car and activity bookings that you make for yourself or for others. Those others could include friends or family, or even strangers around the world who read about your areas of expertise and ask you to make their trip arrangements.
How much could you earn? The website provides a few ballpark examples. Planning a three-night jaunt to New York City for two people could earn you $100, whereas a two-week, multi-country European journey could net you $450.
Once it’s up and running — the company is currently collecting email addresses of potential users, to prepare for a beta testing period — the website will allow you to recommend your favorite hotels and activities. You receive ratings based on how much the travelers enjoy their trips, and presumably, the higher the rating, the more booking requests you could receive and the more commissions you could earn. As with Airbnb and Uber, you also get to rate your customers.
Both sites are suitable for use by individuals going on vacation or for companies booking business travel.
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.
Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, October 24, 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 Steven Rock, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery country was New Zealand. Steven has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.
Check out the travel stories you might have missed over the past week.
The Countries with the Best (and Worst) Airfare Deals in the World
Thrillist reports on a new aviation price index that can help you keep perspective on whether it truly is expensive to fly. The U.S. is the third-cheapest country for domestic flights (behind India and Malaysia), but it ranks 54th (out of 75 countries) for international flights. Canada ranks dead last for international flights, while China offers the best value.
Surfing Under the Northern Lights
Even if you’re not particularly interested in surfing, you won’t want to miss this feature from the New York Times, which combines striking imagery with a fascinating story about “hanging 10” in an unexpected part of the world.
A New Perspective of Our Planet
We loved clicking through the incredible satellite photos in this slideshow from CNN. Our favorite shots include Ipanema Beach and tulip fields in the Netherlands.
Why Airline Codesharing Must Die
Ever booked a flight on one airline and then realized at the airport that your flight was actually operated by a different carrier? USA Today explains the dangers of codesharing, including going to the wrong terminal or even missing your flight.
One of the pleasures of staying in a hotel is enjoying all the little luxuries that come with your room — slipping into a bathrobe or pair of slippers, trying out a new brand of body lotion. But for many frequent travelers hotel amenities leave a little to be desired, even at expensive properties.
Cecilia Freeman, a member of the IndependentTraveler.com community team, recently found herself disappointed by the in-room coffee at a Seattle hotel for which she paid $275 a night. “The coffee was Starbucks, but they stocked these generic fake sugar and creamer packets with a useless napkin and a stirry straw,” she told me. “Every time I travel and stay in any level of hotel, I always get the same lame amenity pack for the coffee. I wondered if Starbucks would be happy its coffee was accompanied by this awful generic stuff.”
It spurred her to look at other common hotel amenities with a more critical eye: “Shower caps? Who uses those? Shoeshine sponges? The list goes on … the whole amenity package for all hotels needs a redo.”
In fairness, I remember one occasion several years back when I did use a hotel shower cap — but that’s one time out of hundreds of hotel stays. Why don’t hotels cut some of these rarely used amenities and offer free Wi-Fi instead? In an informal survey a few years back, we discovered that it was the hotel amenity travelers want most.
I reached out to a couple of other well-traveled colleagues to get their perspective on hotel amenities. Brittany Chrusciel, an associate editor for IndependentTraveler.com’s sister site, Cruise Critic, wants to ban bar soap at the sink. “I don’t mind a bar in the shower, but I’d much rather have liquid soap for hand washing,” she said. “Half the time there’s no soap dish, so the bar slithers all over the sink and makes a mess. Plus, it’s a waste when you only use it for a day or two. A hand soap dispenser is so much neater and more convenient.”
My own biggest pet peeve? Hotels that only offer a single pillow on each side of a bed, with no extras in the closet. Cruise Critic senior editor Chris Gray Faust agreed: “I like having a fortress of pillows.”
There are some hotel amenities we love, including bottled water (preferably free), hypoallergenic pillows, facewash and cotton swabs. Best of all: a little note that says “Forgot something? Call the front desk” with an offer to supply things like toothbrushes, toothpaste or razors.
If you wear eyeglasses, you’ll need to take them off before having a photo snapped for your passport.
Starting in two weeks, on November 1, the U.S. State Department is banning glasses from passport photos. Apparently, rogue shadows and glares are skewing our good looks.
Glasses are the most common reason that passport application photos get rejected, according to the State Department. In fact, passport processors had to turn back more than 200,000 passport applications last year because of poor photos. Eliminating eyeglasses will add more consistency to U.S. passports and hopefully prevent a good chunk of application rejections.
Given that the passport division expects to process 20 million U.S. passports next year — a record high — anything it can do to speed up the process is good for all of us.
If you absolutely must wear your glasses to have your photo taken, you may do so, but must include a note from your doctor stating that the glasses are a “medical necessity.” Our advice? If you can do without your eyeglasses for the five seconds that you’re having your pic snapped, forgo them; you can still wear them while traveling.
If you are sporting the four-eyed look in your current passport, don’t fret. Your travel documents are still valid. Just remember to go sans glasses when you get the passport renewed.
And unlike in France, where an administrative appeals court has upheld a ban on smiling for passport photos or identity papers, you are still allowed to look happy in your U.S. passport photo. For now.
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.” (Note: Multi-word cities or countries are scrambled into one word, so “San Juan” might appear as SJAANUN.) Identify all four mystery cities to win.
Enter your list of unscrambled cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, October 17, 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 F Del Aguila, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the puzzle answers below.
How Travel Nerds Book Airfare
Houstonia offers an in-depth look at how one traveler got creative to find an affordable airfare to Europe — including trying different cities, checking trains and rental cars, and piecing together itineraries with discount airlines.
16 Evocative Pictures of Sri Lanka
Get inspired by these photos from Rough Guides from a recent trip to Sri Lanka. Be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom — we promise the last one will make you smile.
This week’s video is a short feature film from Holland.com. Yes, it’s basically a 17-minute destination commercial, but the sweet storyline and the dreamy footage of Amsterdam make it an entertaining watch.
There’s a new hotel site for travelers who want to do good while exploring the world: KindTraveler.com. Launched in summer 2016, the site has partnered with hotels in the U.S., the Caribbean and Mexico to encourage travelers to donate to charity in exchange for a discounted nightly rate.
Plug in your travel dates, and you’ll get a list of available hotels and rates. Click on one, and you’ll see how much of a discount you can get for a donation of $10 a night to charity. For a February stay at the upscale 1 Hotel South Beach in Miami, I was offered a $95 discount per night with my donation, taking the rate from $731/night to $636/night. (If you book directly on the hotel’s website without making a donation through Kind Traveler, the lowest available rate is $640 a night — so the savings aren’t necessarily as large as they might appear.)
At the James Chicago, a $10/night donation took the price from $149 to $124 per night for my February dates. (On the hotel’s website, the lowest available rate was $130 a night.)
When you’re ready to book, you can select the hotel’s recommended charity or choose your own. The site’s causes fall into 10 categories, such as wildlife, human rights, environment, education, health and disaster relief. Charities within these categories include the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Arbor Day Foundation, among others. You can pay for your booking with a credit card or use PayPal.
The site’s offerings are limited so far, with fewer than two dozen hotels, most of which appear to cost more than $200 a night. The properties are mostly boutique hotels and have been vetted for “Kind Factors” such as eco-friendly toiletries, recycling programs and donations to their local communities.
While the site’s offerings are too limited to benefit most travelers right now, the idea is a worthy one, and we’ll be keeping an eye on the site as it expands. Check it out yourself at KindTraveler.com.
A few weeks ago, the airline trade group International Air Transport Association announced that incidents involving unruly passengers increased more than 16 percent in 2015 over the previous year. Unsurprisingly, drugs or alcohol are involved in quite a number of such incidents.
We talked to three people who know all too well what it’s like to be on a flight when a rowdy flier starts acting out.
In the Event of an Emergency, Use Oxygen Masks
“During the 1990s, [I’m] flying home from Europe. A football hooligan goes into bathroom for a smoke. The alarm goes off. A flight attendant opens the loo door and said hooligan punches the flight attendant.
“A cockpit crewmember and a random big dude passenger then wrestle the hooligan to his seat and bind him to the seat using oxygen tubing. When we land at Dulles International, the plane sits on the tarmac until the cops come to squire the dude away.” — Mark Rovner, Takoma Park, Maryland
A Tall Order to Expect Respect
“On a stopover in Las Vegas en route to San Francisco, a very drunk and very tall man boarded our plane. He insisted that, because of his height, he should be in one of the bulkhead seats.
“He tried to bully the people out of those seats. They ignored him and refused. The staff intervened, at which point the man became verbally abusive to the passengers in the seat he wanted and to the flight attendants. The pilot and copilot came out.
“The situation escalated to the point that the police boarded and removed him from the plane. He may have even spat on someone in the ruckus.” — Amy Thomas, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
They Finally Quit in Quito
“Midway through a flight from Miami to Quito, Ecuador, the ringleader of a group of early 20-somethings whipped out a paper bag-masked bottle of liquor and started passing it around among his friends. They got progressively louder and more obnoxious.
“The flight attendants would tell them to stop, they’d say okay and then they’d start drinking again. That happened a few times before the pilot came back and threatened to land in Panama and have them arrested if they didn’t turn over the alcohol. They complied — then started smoking cigarettes! And this was well after all flights became non-smoking.
“After we landed in Quito, the Ecuadorian police came onboard and arrested the obnoxious ringleader.” — James Hannum, Urbana, Illinois