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Gird yourself: TSA security officers may get even more up close and personal with you on your next trip.

airport security


According to a report from Bloomberg, the TSA has consolidated five different pat-down options into a single method that’s more “comprehensive” and “more intrusive.”

The TSA is famously reluctant to offer details about security procedures. But one major change, Bloomberg noted in a subsequent report, is that screeners can now use the front of their hands, rather than just the back, on “sensitive areas of the body” such as the breasts, buttocks and genitals.

Travelers can elect to have their pat-down in public or private, with or without a witness. Screenings are performed by same-gender security officers.

According to Bloomberg, the new procedure is partly in response to a critical 2015 audit of the TSA’s screening procedures, which revealed that security officers had failed to find guns and other weapons.

Most travelers pass through security without having to undergo a pat-down. You may be subject to a pat-down if you opt out of a trip through the full-body scanner, or if the security officer decides you need additional screening for any reason.

Airport Security Q&A: Everything You Need to Know
10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security

— written by Sarah Schlichter

If T-shirts are among the souvenirs you’ve collected over your years of traveling, chances are you have a plentiful stock of vintage, too-small, faded or out-of-fashion tops cluttering your dresser drawers or storage room. But you can repurpose them into useful household items, home decor and new wearables without losing their charm.

t-shirts


1. Kids’ Clothes: An Alaskan mom named Natasha fashioned a baby onesie out of a vintage St. Thomas beach resort T-shirt and it couldn’t be cooler. Check out the tutorial on Knit Nat. You can make other children’s clothes too, including this adorable Savannah-themed sundress for a little girl from the blog Pretty Prudent.

2. Quilts: We’ve seen plenty of sports jerseys, cheerleading T-shirts and runners’ bibs fashioned into fleece-back quilts, so why not do the same with your travel T-shirts? Project Repat will snip and sew quilts using 16 to 64 T-shirts. The company takes a socially and environmentally conscious approach too, collaborating with manufacturers committed to providing jobs in the United States and using backing made from recycled fleece. If you have sewing skills, you could make your own quilt following these WikiHow instructions.

3. Tote Bags: In fewer than 15 minutes, you could turn an old T-shirt into a reusable tote bag — and you don’t even have to sew to do it. The small totes are sized right for trips to the grocery store. Here are instructions from Instructables.com for a no-sew tote. Apartment Therapy teaches you how to make T-shirt-based produce bags.

4. Pillowcases: How cute would it be to have a travel-themed sitting room decorated with your favorite photos and souvenirs on the walls and travel T-shirt pillows on the furniture? Snap Guide shows you how to make small pillows from T-shirts.

5. Artwork: With a square canvas and a staple gun, the image on an old T-shirt can become a work of art for your walls. Lifehacker provides simple instructions.

8 Things Not to Bring Home from a Trip
Shutterfly: Photo Albums in a Digital Age

— 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, March 6, 2017, 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 Barbara Sampson, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery country was Cuba. Barbara has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Hiking in Alaska? Strolling around Singapore? No matter the type of trip, a good daypack is a vital part of any traveler’s arsenal. I recently tested out the Matador Freerain24, a daypack that can be rolled up into a small storage bag when you’re not using it. Is this the right backpack for you? Read on.

matador freerain24 daypack


What We Liked
It’s waterproof. Aside from the front and side pockets, the bag is well sealed and will protect your stuff in a rainstorm.

It’s lightweight and space-efficient. The bag weighs just 5.5 ounces and folds up into a drawstring bag that fits in the palm of your hand.

It’s stronger than it seems. The fabric is so thin that I worried it would tear easily. But while the tag cautions users to keep the bag away from “abrasive surfaces and sharp objects,” I attempted to stab it with a pen and found it more puncture-resistant than it initially seemed.

It holds a lot. For such a lightweight pack, it holds more than you might expect. The main compartment has a 24-liter capacity, and I was able to get several garments into it along with books, snacks and a couple of bottles of water with no problem.

What We Didn’t Like
There aren’t many pockets. The main part of the bag is a single large compartment, with no internal pockets or slots to keep things organized. There is a vertical pocket on the front of the bag as well as two pockets on the sides for water bottles or other items.

It’s a little tricky to put back in the bag. If you struggle to refold a map or to squeeze everything back into your suitcase at the end of a trip, you might also have a hard time rolling this backpack into the right shape and size to fit back into its little storage bag.

matador freerain24 daypack


There’s no sternum strap. Many travelers rely on a strap across the chest to help stabilize the shoulder straps and balance the weight of the pack. That may or may not matter with such a lightweight daypack, but if a sternum strap is important to you, then you’ll need to add one yourself to the Freerain24.

It’s a little pricey. At $59.99, the Freerain24 costs more than many other daypacks on the market.

You can purchase the Freerain24 at the Matador website.

The 5 Worst Packing Problems and How to Solve Them
How to Pack Efficiently: 8 Products That Can Help

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.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

Have you ever tried to tell the story of something exciting or funny that happened on vacation, but you fell flat? Don’t feel bad, says storytelling coach Esther Choy, the founder and president of the Leadership Story Lab in Chicago. It happens to all of us.

esther choy skiing


Taking a break during a family ski vacation in Park City, Utah, Choy coached us on how to be a better storyteller when sharing our own travel tales.

Independent Traveler: In general, do you think most people are good or bad at storytelling?
Esther Choy:
Most people have wonderful stories buried in them. But there are a few things they can do to tell them better. What makes a novel a page-turner is that at every critical juncture of a plot, readers find out a bit more about the characters, and yet there is another cliffhanger. So the novel is intriguing their audiences.

You don’t need to handcuff yourself to recounting events as they unfolded per their chronological order. Telling stories involves an intriguing beginning, a riveting middle and a satisfying end. This three-act formula can generate an hour-plus-long story, or it can be a 30-second experience.

And you don’t have to be a superhero to tell great stories. Sure, if you’ve just climbed Kilimanjaro while hoisting your aging parents and barely walking toddler twins along, you’re a superhero. But a compelling tale can be as seemingly mundane as getting through a quarter of your reading list during a laid-back beach vacation. A great story relates the central theme of your story to a universality, a shared human experience.

IT: What other components make up a good travel tale?
EC:
You have to balance indulgences with an experience your listeners can relate to. Of course, if you’ve discovered the best ramen in the world, by all means, share that. But if your tale is mostly about touting one indulgence after another, then you’re creating a “Facebook updates” experience for your audience. Yawn!

A good travel tale has a well-balanced mix of new, pleasurable discovery and universal experience. Let’s say that after discovering your favorite ramen restaurant in Honolulu, you went overboard and ate ramen every day for five days. Then you had indigestion and didn’t love the ramen place as much. As you wrapped up your tale, you reflected on how even a little bit of self-restraint could have perfected the whole experience. In this story, discovering the best ramen is the indulgence. Exercising more self-discipline in order to preserve a wonderful experience is the universality.

IT: Before you start telling a story, what should you think through to make sure the story is well received?
EC:
Always keep your audience’s preference in mind. With an adventure story, some might be more intrigued by how you arrived at the best whitewater rafting part of the Grand Canyon. Some might wonder how you justified to your boss that taking a month off for this experience would make you a better employee.

No matter the preference, treat the storytelling more like a dialogue, implanting hooks for questions, rather than doling out one long monologue. In my upcoming book Let the Story Do the Work, I talk about how “aggressive listening” is a prerequisite for good storytelling. The main idea is that you want to incorporate what is important to your audience as you’re telling your stories.

IT: What should you do if you notice that your listener is losing interest?
EC:
It’s important to pay attention to signs of waning interest. They’re smiling too long. They’ve stopped mirroring your body language. They’re looking toward the door or at their phones.

Cliffhangers help. And if you’re telling a travel story in an informal setting, know that your story doesn’t have to be a monologue. Take advantage of natural back-and-forth of dialogue to break things up. Ask a rhetorical question — “Guess what happened next?” And use humor to re-engage interest.

IT: Does it help to show visuals, such as photographs or souvenirs?
EC:
Visuals can help, but be highly selective. A picture can speak a thousand words, but only if you’ve chosen a good one. For example, my husband and his friend are very advanced skiers. One day, they ventured to the peak of Red Pine Bowl in Park City. Once they summited, they saw a sign that said “You Can Die.”

As they shared their stories over dinner, all they said in the beginning was, “We HAVE to show you this sign.” And they refused to say anything else. This was highly effective because it left us wondering, what was that sign? Why wouldn’t they say anything else?

you can die sign


IT: Okay, you got us. What happened next?
EC:
On a ski lift, my husband Bernhard and his friend Nik met a local skier who recommended that they hike up to the top because the view was worth it. It was already toward the end of their day and they were tired. But then they thought, what the heck? Just as they reached the top, though, they saw the sign.

At this point during our dinner, Bernhard and Nik paused. With a smirk, Bernhard said, “This sign got me thinking…” And then his voice trailed off. Nik chimed in, “I wondered what would happen if…” His voice trailed off too.

I have witnessed Nik promised his wife not to do any double black hills with a cliff or anything “too risky” on several occasions. His wife and I looked at each other, and waited for more in full anticipation.

“So we took a left, followed the trail and went back down.” And that was that!

As you can see, in this little story no one got hurt and no one died. No one even attempted any highly risky act. The only highlight was the sign. Although the sign was a bit dramatic in its messaging, there wasn’t any other dramatic element in the whole story. But Bernhard and Nik know their wives well. They made full use of anticipation, pauses and dialoguing to tell this fun tale.

And by the way, the view was so worth it.

Check out more travel interviews!

What’s your favorite travel story?

8 Things Not to Bring Home from a Trip
The 6 Qualities of Highly Effective Travelers

— interview conducted 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.” Multi-word cities or countries are scrambled into one word, so “San Juan” might appear as SJAANUN. (Hint: This week there are no multi-word cities or countries.) Identify all four mystery cities to win.

OTRTOON, NACDAA

LEARSGI, AAIRLEG

AANLIM, SLPNHIPEIPI

SWCMOO, SUIASR


Enter your list of unscrambled cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, February 27, 2017, 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 Scott Forbes, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the puzzle answers below.

TORONTO, CANADA

ALGIERS, ALGERIA

MANILA, PHILIPPINES

MOSCOW, RUSSIA


— created by Sarah Schlichter

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

senior center in cuba


In this month’s winning review, a traveler joins 19 other volunteers to make a difference in Cuba: “Every afternoon we had a few hours of free time before working with students practicing English for about two hours,” Lynn writes. “Later we all met for dinner with our excellent team leader, Stephanie, at various locations. The trip was a combination of helping our host community and a wonderful cultural learning experience for a group of Americans, most of whom had never been to Cuba.”

Read the rest of Lynn’s review here: My Visit to Cuba as a Volunteer. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com sweatshirt.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

There’s no need to go to a photo shop or your local 24-hour pharmacy to get your passport photos made. You are allowed to take them at home. But don’t take a selfie — or at least don’t make it obviously a selfie — because your U.S. passport application could be denied.

holding a passport and boarding pass


Here are 10 other interesting facts about U.S. passports:

1. U.S. passports are made with a whopping 60 different materials provided by 16 different vendors. The assembly process is considered top secret, according to this fascinating Gizmodo article.

2. Benjamin Franklin whipped up a makeshift passport on his own printing press for a former Continental Congressman to travel freely in Europe in 1780. The document was considered one of the first recorded U.S. passports, according to Smithsonian.com.

3. In 2016 the U.S. Department of State issued 18.7 million passports. That’s more than three times higher than the number issued just two decades earlier.

4. The United States was the first country to issue machine-readable passports, in 1981.

5. U.S. citizens are required to use U.S. passports when entering the country, even if they hold dual citizenship.

6. Last year there were 131.8 million valid passports in circulation, according to the State Department. However, 18 million of them are set to expire this year, which is about 4 million more than last year, according to the Sun Sentinel. That’s because in 2007, the U.S. government made it a requirement to have a passport to fly or drive to any international destination. Previously, you could go to such spots as the Caribbean or Mexico without one.

7. Does the president need to travel with a passport? Yes, according to Slate, but he travels with a black diplomatic passport — one of three types of passports the U.S. government issues (the others are the blue tourist passport and “official” maroon passports, typically used by the military).

8. If you’ve gotten extreme plastic surgery, tattooed your face, or lost or gained a significant amount of weight, you could be required to get a new passport.

9. The U.S. passport is tied for third (along with six European countries) as the most powerful passport in the world, according to PassportIndex.org. It allows access to 156 countries without a visa; Germany leads with 158 countries.

10. Among the things you shouldn’t wear when having your passport photo taken: Eyeglasses, headphones, hats, temporary tattoos and uniforms of any sort. Unacceptable photos are the No. 1 reason passport applications are denied, according to the State Department.

10 Things You Don’t Know About Passports
12 Ways to Cruise Through Customs and Immigration

— written 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 13th-century castle on an island is an icon in its home country.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, February 20, 2017, 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 Sue, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland. Sue 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

In 2008, Sean P. Finelli left behind his Wall Street career to move to Rome, where he soon became a popular tour guide with the nickname “the Roman guy.” Finelli decided to direct his passion for Rome into a new tour company that would emphasize unique and immersive experiences across Italy. And thus The Roman Guy was born.

brandon shaw and sean finelli


The company is run by Finelli and co-owner Brandon Shaw, who work with their team to offer a variety of city tours and trip planning services. We reached out to Finelli and Shaw to discover what advice they’d give first-time Italy travelers, which regions of the country don’t get enough love and which Italian foods visitors must try on their next trip.

IndependentTraveler.com: What are some of the most unique tours The Roman Guy offers in Italy?
Sean:
The most unique tour must be our Colosseum Underground tour, which we’ve titled Colosseum Dungeons Tour. You get access to areas that nobody else has access to. Think about the 30,000 visitors that enter the building in the summer. Only about 300 get to visit the dungeons. That’s pretty unique, and people love it.

Brandon: Our E-bike Rome Tour is a strong second. Imagine beating the heat and covering three times as much of the city as a walking tour and not even breaking a sweat. We are super-passionate about green travel and have now created a way to not only see the whole city in three hours but also add zero carbon emission in doing it.

IT: Which region in Italy deserves a little more love? Why?
Sean:
Most people would pick areas like Puglia or Sicily, but I’ll go with Lazio. Yes, Lazio. Everyone goes to Rome, the capital of the region, but after that people are gone. There are amazing nearby towns like Frascati, Marino, Castel Gandolfo and Tivoli, plus beaches like Sperlonga. You can enjoy sunset beach parties in Fregene or a relaxing and luxurious holiday in Ponza. Outside of Rome, Lazio is a locals’ paradise that outside visitors could really give a little bit more love.

Brandon: My pick would be Umbria, a region in central Italy. People rarely visit Umbria on their first trip to Italy. Umbria is usually discovered when people come back on their second or third trip and are looking for something new. I say come to Umbria during your first trip to Italy — you will not regret it. Within Umbria, you have some beautiful historic cities to explore like Orvieto, “dying cities” like Civita di Bagnoregio (which only has 17 official residents) and an amazing waterfall that makes you feel like you are in a South American rain forest. And all of this is within a two-hour drive of Rome!

5 Less Visited Churches in Rome

IT: What advice would you give someone planning his or her first trip to Italy?
Sean:
Be clear about what you want to get out of the trip. Remember that the more you “see” the less you’ll actually “see.” What I mean is that you need to stop and smell the Italian sunflowers. Don’t cram so much in just to cross it off the bucket list. Make time for sitting down, relaxing and chatting with the locals. Make time for three-hour lunches. I went to Puglia for 10 days with no itinerary and it was amazing. We stopped to jump off cliffs into the water, had amazing lunches and stopped in cool-looking towns. Italy has so much that you will alway find something else to do.

Brandon: Doing a good amount of research before your trip will go a long way in making your trip more memorable. Nobody wants to waste precious time waiting in lines, so purchase your tickets ahead of time and skip the lines. Buy your train tickets in advance so you don’t have the stress of trying to find a spot on a train last minute. Look into some restaurants that you might want to visit, so you don’t end up in the typical tourist traps. Or just use The Roman Guy and we’ll do all the heavy lifting for you!

dolomites italy


IT: Are there places in Italy that you haven’t visited yet but would like to explore?
Sean:
The Dolomites. Like most travelers, I am always intrigued by photography and the Dolomites appear to offer some great adventure tourism: this massive jagged mountain range popping up from the rolling hills. What’s not to love?

Brandon: Val d’Aosta. It’s the area on the border with France. I haven’t been there but have heard that the views are amazing, as you are so close to the French Alps. I am also an avid wine enthusiast, and Val d’Aosta is renowned for their excellent, crisp white wines that suit the northern climate perfectly.

IT: Beyond pizza, pasta and gelato, which dish should every Italy traveler try?
Sean:
Isn’t that all Italy produces? I personally recommend fish. Italy is a peninsula with plenty of seafood. It’s hard to recommend a particular dish, but if you are within a short drive of the sea, eat seafood. People going to Rome often want carbonara and Amatriciana, but Rome is a seafood city. We’re 20 mins from saltwater accessible via the Tiber River. Rome’s speciality is salt-crusted sea bass. They say it dates back to Roman times.

Brandon: This is a tough question since the array of food in Italy is so diverse depending on the region. We’ve actually just recently created an interactive Italy food map to inspire foodies coming to Italy. Instead of eating something other than pasta, travelers should do some research, and they will discover that there are many kinds of pasta dishes that they have never heard of. A great example is my favorite Roman pasta dish: fettuccine in a tomato sauce used to make a delicacy with oxtail. It is so good it will bring tears to your eyes!

IT: Besides Italy, what are your favorite travel destinations?
Sean:
It’s hard to say this out loud since I sell Italy, but Greece is my vacation spot. The problem with Italy for me is my mind is always at work. Italy is my office. Greece offers decent food and great views. I love the shabby roads and how Greece has maintained some authentic charm. I also love how much elevation you’ll find on the small islands. There is so much to do in Greece and so much to see. The Greeks are also extremely proud and eager to share their history.

Brandon: When not discovering new hidden gems in Italy, you will usually find me in the French Alps. The mountain air is invigorating and allows you to reset. We stay in little mountain villages where you get fresh milk from the cows that morning that is still warm, and fresh cheese that was just made as well. Staying in places like these allow you to change the tempo and just savor life more. I also love snowboarding so it’s perfect in the wintertime, because you can access the slopes directly from your log cabin.

Check out more travel interviews!

11 Best Italy Experiences
25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter