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singers cuba el tanqueRecent changes from President Obama mean that it’s gotten significantly easier for Americans to visit Cuba, but they must still travel under one of 12 categories mandated by the U.S. government. A research trip or a visit to see family? No problem. A beach vacation or simple sightseeing? Those are a no-go. (For the full list of legal categories, see Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How.)

For those of us who aren’t journalists, professors or baseball players starring in an exhibition game, the easiest way to get to Cuba is with a company operating “people-to-people” tours, which fall under the umbrella of Educational Activities as far as the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is concerned. These trips focus on cultural exchange by putting American visitors directly in contact with the Cubans themselves — often in ways that would be difficult or even impossible to arrange on your own.

I recently traveled on such an itinerary with smarTours, which arranged numerous people-to-people activities during our four days in Havana. One highlight was a visit to El Tanque, where an abandoned water tank that used to service steam trains has been transformed into a bustling community center where neighborhood kids can learn painting, music, ceramics, dancing, theater and filmmaking. Several of the instructors gave us an impromptu musical performance before answering questions about the project, giving us insight into how economically challenged neighborhoods in Havana are supporting themselves from within.

5 Things You Need to Know About Traveling to Cuba Now

cuba photographer artist lorenzo lopez sheningThe interactive experiences continued throughout the trip. We ate lunch one day with a local magazine writer, the next with a retired pitcher who’d played for various Cuban baseball teams. We were treated to a private concert by Ele, a dynamic singing group, as well as a performance by incredibly talented children who were studying acrobatics and other circus skills as part of an after-school program called Angels of the Future. (One child swung from the ceiling; another contorted herself into painful-looking poses; still another stood barefoot on his friend’s head!) On our last day in Cuba, we were welcomed into the home of a local artist/photographer, who generously spent an hour answering our group’s questions about his life, his work and the future of Cuba.

While I loved strolling the streets of Old Havana and watching the Buena Vista Social Club perform at our hotel — activities I could’ve done easily on an independent trip — it was the people-to-people aspects of the itinerary that proved to be the most informative and rewarding. At this pivotal point in Cuban history, it was important to hear the voices of the people themselves, expressing their hopes and fears about what’s ahead. (“After the embargo” was a phrase we heard over and over again.)

Yes, group trips have their drawbacks, especially if you love wandering and prefer your schedule to be your own. And I support the right of all American travelers to visit Cuba independently when it’s legal to do so. But I hope that even after all the restrictions are gone, there will still be companies offering people-to-people itineraries in Cuba — because there are few better ways to understand and appreciate this unique culture.

Read About Other Travelers’ Experiences in Cuba

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

prague czech republic


Population: 10.6 million

Currency: Czech koruna

Phrase to Know: Dobry den (hello/good day)

Fun Fact: The Czech people consume more beer per capita than anyone else in the world, beating out the Irish in second place.

We Recommend: Join the locals in foraging for wild mushrooms, a popular hobby during the summer and fall in the Czech Republic.

10 Best Czech Republic Experiences

Have you been to the Czech Republic? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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, May 18, 2015, 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 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 Nancy James, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Swaziland. Nancy has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

If you’ve ever had a travel-size bottle of shampoo or lotion leak all over the inside of your suitcase, you might be a good candidate to try a new brand of toiletries called Squeeze Pod. As the name suggests, these are stored in lightweight, single-use “pods” that can be squeezed to dispense each product. They’re designed not to leak until you break the seal; after use, you simply throw them away.

Check out this quick video about how they work:


I tried out a variety of Squeeze Pod products on a recent trip to Cuba. I found that the toiletries were pleasantly scented and did their job just fine. The only slight exception was the toilet odor eliminator, which didn’t entirely banish the smell I needed banished, but helped matters significantly by masking it with a clean, eucalyptus-tinted fragrance. All Squeeze Pod toiletries are vegan, sulfate-free, made in the U.S. and not tested on animals.

My only hitch was actually opening the pods. It’s important to break the seal by pulling the tab up toward the colored side of the packaging, not the other way. (The pods I tested didn’t have this labeled, but a spokesperson says the company is hoping to add clearer instructions in the future, as well as experimenting with different kinds of plastic that would only bend in one direction.) Pulling the tab the wrong way at first causes the seal not to break cleanly, leaving me spurting shampoo all over the shower wall on one occasion, and having to squeeze with a wrestler’s strength to eke the gel out through a too-tiny hole on several other occasions.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

squeeze pod variety packSqueeze Pod currently has five products for sale on its website: toilet odor eliminator, moisturizing lotion, hair gel, shave cream and hand purifier. Four of the other toiletries I was able to try are not currently for sale, but the company tells us they’re coming in June: shampoo, conditioner, facial cleanser and body wash. The cost ranges from $1.49 for a three-pack of hand purifier to $120 for a sampler of more than 225 pods of various types.

Want to try these toiletries out for yourself? We’re giving away a variety pack that includes two to three pods each of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, facial cleanser, toilet odor eliminator, shaving cream, hand purifier, moisturizing lotion and hair gel. Just leave us a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on May 31, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the variety pack. 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.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner of the Squeeze Pod toiletry pack is Anisa Parker. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further chances to win.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

lanai, hawaii sweetheart rockIf you’re planning on visiting the small island of Lanai — just off of Maui — any time before mid-2016, you might not be able to stay there. Larry Ellison, ranked the fifth wealthiest person in the world, purchased 98 percent of the island in 2012 — a steal at $300 million. According to a story on Road Warrior Voices, affiliated with USA Today Travel, Ellison has closed most of the island’s accommodations in order to make Lanai “the first economically viable, 100 percent green community.” Just 11 hotel rooms remain available, located at the Hotel Lanai. Both of the island’s Four Seasons properties — totaling 303 rooms — will be closed, allowing for construction workers to stay at one property, the Lodge at Koele, while they renovate the other, the Four Seasons Resort Lana’i at Manele Bay. Both properties are set to reopen later this year.

Editor’s Note: Visitors can still reach Lanai via day trips from Maui.

Ellison, former CEO of the software company Oracle Corporation, has been described by a biographer as a “modern-day Genghis Khan,” according to an article in the New York Times, more for his intense and extravagant style than any war games. However, Lanai has had a history of dictatorships — by Mormons, pineapple-growers, other billionaires and, as legend has it, a god of nightmares. Luckily, residents seem to be grateful for the new owner and his bold vision for the island, according to interviews in the Times article. This vision includes infrastructure such as bigger airport runways and a state-of-the-art desalination plant as well as organic wineries, a film studio and a bowling alley.

“He is renewing, refreshing, rejuvenating every part of the island,” a woman named Mimi Evangelista told the Times. “I feel blessed, blessed beyond my wildest dreams.”

However, not everyone on the island is fully in support of how Pulama Lanai, Ellison’s management company (he never attends meetings or addresses residents in person), communicates its plans for the island. (Jon Mooallem, the author of the Times article, encountered a near code of silence.)

Despite any changes taking place over the next year, only time will tell how one man’s vision — in a line of many — will pan out for Hawaiian island of Lanai, home to 3,200 residents and a potential vacation destination for countless travelers.

Check Out 5 Top-Rated Honolulu Hotels

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

airplane frustrated womanThere’s one on every plane: a person who kicks the back of your seat, puts stinky feet in your general vicinity, gives the flight attendant a hard time or just plain forgets to shower before a long-haul flight. With the dawn of social media accounts like Passenger Shaming, it’s becoming easier to publicly call out the cretins who can’t seem to mind their in-flight manners. But one fed-up flier, Mun Yee, crafted an eloquent letter to chastise a particularly awful flightmate on a recent trip from Singapore to Sydney.

“Despite my common economy seat, you offered me a full back massage by repeatedly kicking the back of [my] chair,” Yee writes. “To date, I have yet to regain full mobility of the lower half of my body.

“Also, could you tell me where you bought those obnoxious snacks? I assume that they must have been delicious ’cause you rip[ped] one open every 30 minutes.”

Reports of excessively loud talking also appear in the letter, as does this:

“… my nose was assaulted by a putrid smell of death and decay. It was so nice of you to take off your shoes and put your feet between my seat and the plane window.”

Patrick Stewart Hilariously Acts Out 5 Most Annoying Fliers

We want to give a shout-out to you, Mun Yee. We congratulate you, sympathize with you and hope your letter reaches the eyes of anyone who thinks this conduct is socially acceptable.

What’s the worst behavior you’ve encountered on a flight? Be sure to comment below.

JetBlue Introduces Funny Flight Etiquette Videos

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

patagonia mountains argentina hiker


Population: 43 million

Currency: Argentine peso

Phrase to Know: No entiendo (I don’t understand)

Fun Fact: Buenos Aires is home to one of the world’s widest avenues; 9 de Julio Avenue stretches up to seven lanes in each direction.

We Recommend: Take a cruise at the edge of the world in Ushuaia, one of the planet’s southernmost cities. The nearby Beagle Channel is home to sea lions, albatrosses and other wildlife.

10 Best Argentina Experiences

Have you been to Argentina? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five countries that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter. For examples, check out this blog post.

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

index card puzzle


Enter your list of countries (and the name of the movies) in the comments below. You have until Monday, May 11, 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 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 Daniel, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

countries that appear in movie titles


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

— created by Dori Saltzman

daydream of travelUnless your job involves frequent travel, you probably don’t take more than a small handful of trips a year. Those of us blessed (cursed?) with wanderlust all know the inevitable restlessness that sets in when you’ve been in one place for too long — because let’s face it: the afterglow doesn’t last too long post-trip. Depending on the severity, here’s what I do when I get the itch.

1. Reminisce
When it’s rainy outside, I’m feeling sluggish or I’m stuck at my desk for hours and wishing I was somewhere else, I sometimes pore through photos from past trips or drool over online pictures of exotic places, wishing I were there. It’s usually a decent quick fix, but it can also leave me wanting to travel even more. If the latter happens, I …

2. Plan a Trip
Like most travelers, I have a mile-long bucket list of places I’m dying to visit. When photos alone won’t do the trick, I sit down and actually plan out what I’d like to do when I finally make my way to one of my dream destinations. It helps me to be realistic about how much it’ll cost, how many days I’ll need to see and do everything, and when I’ll be able to go.

How to Make Your Dream Trip a Reality

3. Book a Trip
In more extreme cases, the only way to allay my withdrawal is to book a trip so I’ve got something to look forward to. Booking is the biggest hurdle to actually traveling, and once I’ve cleared it, it only gets better from there.

4. Pick Up and Go
This tactic is obviously easier to take if it involves a quick weekend trip to the beach or the mountains, but even a short getaway is a great way to reset my travel timer when I’m hit with a particularly strong bout of wanderlust. It’s also a nice excuse to explore new places close to home.

4 Travel Videos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

What’s your favorite way to cope between trips?

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

two hands on a brown suitcaseYou thought he was “the one” — you hiked Machu Picchu together, toured South America like two outlaws in love — and now it’s ended in a flurry of badly translated Spanish insults and empty wine bottles. Time to get away, you think — far away. A steal at roughly $83 per night, the Mitsui Garden Yotsuya hotel in Tokyo, Japan, is offering a crying hotel package specifically for female guests. Complete with “luxury tissues” and sappy films encouraging you to use them, the package offers rooms just for single women to bawl their eyes out as well as makeup remover and face masks to make you look like the cryfest never happened. If it couldn’t get any more Japanese, manga comic (aren’t we supposed to be crying here?) books are also included in your hotel room. Perfect way to pore over a break-up in peace.

Back from Tokyo and ready to get back on your feet — literally — a girlfriend’s getaway is the answer to feeling yourself again with some empowerment a la estrogen. The twist? Along with brunch and spa treatments, this girls’ getaway package comes with a geocaching adventure in the Santa Fe mountains. Hunting for charms in the wiles of New Mexico, you’re also hunting for your purpose.

6 Lies Your Hotel Might Tell You

After the inevitable soul searching that comes with being in the desert, you realize your passion in life would be to start a family. You find someone and fall in love (yes, it’s that easy). You could book a strangely elaborate wedding package, but you choose a private ceremony instead. To celebrate your anniversary (and knowing you had to unexpectedly cancel your northern lights honeymoon the year before), you book a stay at the ICEHOTEL in Sweden, which offers a special hotel package that emulates the dreamy atmospheric colors of the northern lights in your hotel room. Snuggling close (it’s pretty chilly in a hotel made of ice) and watching the swirling lights above is pure magic.

Which is why a few months later, you’re planning your babymoon. Yes, these vacations to celebrate the imminent arrival of your much-awaited family are popular enough to warrant their own hotel packages. At the Wauwinet in Nantucket, Massachusetts, expectant mothers and fathers are invited to wind down with a babymoon package, from $635, that includes a two-night stay, spa treatments and even a blue and pink cigar (because cigars and wellness retreats go hand in hand). The stuffed animal for your newborn is a cute gesture, but the White Elephant brand name is a bit unfortunate.

Years have gone by, and the time, money and energy to travel have escaped you for too long. Knowing that your idea of romance these days is take-out and a marathon of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” the Breaking Bad hotel package at Heritage Hotels & Resorts in Albuquerque, NM, is the perfect chance to affirm your love for television … and each other. Your gift bag will include show-themed swag like stickers and posters; bath salts and seasoning salts; themed drinks; “crystal meth” candy; 15 percent off at local shops, restaurants and galleries; free Wi-Fi and optional tours. Short of “Better Call Saul,” this is as close as you’ll get to the real thing these days. As for love, nearby Santa Fe is where it all began — when you decided you wanted your family while geocaching in the mountains, and when you realized travel is truly transformative (and that there might be more to strange hotel packages at second glance).

More Wacky Hotel Packages

— written by Brittany Chrusciel