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burano italyWe recently challenged our readers to write a trip review about their travels for a chance to win a $200 eBags gift card. We loved reading the submissions, which spanned the globe from Bora Bora to Buenos Aires.

Choosing the best review was a true challenge, but in the end we went with Wendy VanHatten’s dispatch from Italy, Burano …. The Cheeriest Little Island. Here’s an excerpt:

“The pace is slow here; slower than Venice. Flower boxes, overflowing with flowers, offer sweet scents; laundry, hanging from second story windows, is just as common as open shutters; bikes, sitting by doorways, wait for their owners; cats, posing for their close-up photos, lazily groom their faces. This is a real island with real Venetians living their lives. You just happen to be their visitor for the day.” Read the rest!

While we only had one prize to give, we want to highlight a few runners-up that we also loved reading:

The Smiles of Papua New Guinea by Ann Swinford: “The highlight of the trip was the Tumbuna Singsing with dances [by] about a dozen tribes. Their preparations, carefully donning makeup and costumes, [were] part of the excitement.”

5 Days in an Overwater Bungalow on Bora Bora by Jill Weinlein: “Everyone loved Janko, including the slippery smooth stingrays. They would swim up his body and kiss him on his face as he fed them raw fish. He made us an authentic Polynesian lunch with grilled marlin, raw fish marinated in coconut and spices, baked taro and tapioca, a delicious coconut cake, fresh papaya and pineapple.”

Canoeing with hippos and crocs on the Zambezi by Miriam Mircutt: “At dusk each night, we headed for one of the islands in the river and camped on their beaches. We washed behind trees from buckets of water which one of the guides delivered to us straight from the river. We slept under skies spattered with stars and were woken often by the sounds of grumping hippos and screaming hyenas.”

How I Spent My Summer Vacation 2014 by vagabondginger: “My best advice for Yellowstone (and elsewhere) is to not just view it through a camera lens. It’s better to put down the camera and pick up the binoculars and just watch the wildlife in its natural environment.”

Feeling inspired? Share advice from your latest trip!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Details of Delta Airlines’ newest seat classes — Comfort+ and Delta One — were released on Monday. Comfort+ will replace Economy Comfort, the airline’s extra legroom seats, while Delta One is its new Business Elite cabin.

We caught wind of the changes from the blog View from the Wing, which questioned whether the upgrades were noteworthy.

Highlights of the rebranded classes came via a video on Delta’s YouTube channel. While the free drink vouchers known as Have One On Us have been eliminated, Comfort+ will include complimentary beer, wine and spirits. These vouchers were previously available to elites in economy class who weren’t upgraded. Premium snacks will be available to passengers of this class on domestic flights of 900 miles or more. Dedicated overhead bin space has also been added to this cabin. Priority boarding remains a perk.


The main perk in the Delta One class is the flatbed seats on select flights, along with Tumi amenity kits and regional dining selections.

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Both cabins, as well as First Class, will feature new quilted seat covers.

If you’re a Gold Medallion member, the bad news is you’ll no longer be able to choose Comfort+ at booking for free. Access to these seats will be released 72 hours before check-in for Gold Medallion and 24 hours before for Silver Medallion.

The new cabin classes take effect March 1, 2015. I guess the question is whether these upgrades come at a cost, or if airlines are making a genuine effort to improve the in-flight experience. If that’s the case, when can we expect to see improvement to coach? What do you think? What upgrade is the most important to you?

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

sandals beach vacationThis is part one of a two-part series about my experience with a “free vacation” offer. In this segment, I’ll outline how my friend and I “won” and what we had to endure to claim our “gift.” Check back for part two in 2015, when I’ll discuss if we were actually able to book a trip and, if so, how it went, if it’s worth the time and whether it’s really free.

We’ve all been there. You’re at a sporting event or a fair, and someone approaches you to “register for a chance to win a free vacation.” In my case, it was at a concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and my friend, who’s had a bit of a rough year, was excited by the prospect.

As she filled in her name and contact information, I snatched one of the entry forms and read the fine print on the back. It was standard legal jargon, stating that Sundance Vacations, the company sponsoring the contest, would have the right to get in touch with entrants using any means provided. I figured it was just a ploy to generate email addresses and phone numbers, so I declined.

Fast forward two months. My friend received a phone call from someone at Sundance, telling her they had “good news” and asking her to call for more information. First she dialed me: “Are you sitting down?” she asked. “I never win ANYTHING, but we’re going on vacation!”

A phone call to the company confirmed that we would, in fact, have to sit through a presentation as a condition of acceptance. We assumed a sales pitch would follow, but we were told the whole process would have us in and out within an hour.

Slightly different from companies that offer timeshares, Sundance sells “wholesale vacations,” which it touts as discounted or overstock trips that are less expensive because 1) the company purchases vacations in bulk, and 2) it owns the properties that are available for booking. (I won’t even try to figure out why Sundance needs to “purchase” said vacations if it owns the properties, lest my head explode.)

How to Avoid Travel Scams

During the initial presentation, an attractive and sharply dressed woman attempted to keep the attention of a dozen attendees through witty banter (“I’ll keep this short. I just ran a marathon yesterday, and my legs are killing me”), condescending comments (to a young and slightly disheveled couple with two children: “Surely you’ve never been to Disney World”) and the promise of a “suitcase” of affordable vacations from which we’d be able to draw over a period of several years after signing up and shelling out a modest monthly fee. She went on to explain a bit of math as she clicked through some PowerPoint slides.

polaroids sundance vacationsI had just checked Facebook for the 17th time and was nearly dozing off in my chair when a team of sales representatives came bursting through the back door of the presentation room like an army of Stormtroopers. Each group of visitors was led through a hallway and into a giant room with tables, chairs and, oddly, beach balls — where thousands (literally, we saw the Polaroids everywhere) of customers before us were convinced to purchase vacation packages.

The woman in charge of giving us our first hard sell was actually nice and didn’t pressure us as much as we expected she might. Then her boss came over, asked if we were treated well and turned up the heat by offering us an even sweeter deal. He backed down after we gave him a firm “no” and told him that we had read nothing but negative reviews about the company online. He gave us a couple of weak excuses but eventually realized we weren’t going to budge.

Ninety minutes after our initial arrival, we were taken to meet with our final obstacle, a friendly older gentleman who further lowered the prices and even tossed in meal vouchers. Ultimately, we said no, and he grudgingly gave us the paperwork we needed to claim our four-day, three-night trip to our choice of Cancun, Montego Bay or San Juan.

Apparently we have 60 days to call a phone number (not toll-free), ask questions, gather information (we’d love to see photos of the resort options, as none were provided) and “register” to receive our “reservation deposit invoice.” After receiving it, we have 30 days to send it back with a deposit of $100 each, which is then applied to the imposed taxes and fees of anywhere from about $100 – $185. (Technically the trip is a gift, not a prize, so Sundance isn’t required to cover taxes and fees.) We’re told the deposit is refundable until actual reservations have been made. Stay tuned for part two, coming sometime in 2015, when I’ll tell you whether the trip actually happens.

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In the meantime, tell us if you’ve ever been a part of a “free vacation” offer. How did it work out?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two mouth-watering seasonal beverages.

Would you rather …

… guzzle gluhwein at a Christmas market in Germany, or …

gluhwein mulled wine christmas



… sip warm salep in Turkey?

salep sahlep sahlab turkey


Gluhwein, that delicious mulled wine popular at Christmas markets in German-speaking countries, is spiced with cinnamon, cloves and citrus fruit. Salep (also spelled “sahlep” or “sahlab,” depending on where you’re drinking it) is a popular drink served during the colder months in Turkey, Egypt, Greece and other parts of the former Ottoman Empire. In Turkey the drink is thickened with flour made from the tubers of wild orchids and mixed with warm milk, cinnamon, ginger and/or nutmeg.

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Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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: Originally settled by Baltic tribes then Slavic tribes, this city hosts an annual Marc Chagall Festival.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, December 8, 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 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 Linda McKeekan, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Vitebsk, Belarus. Linda has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

The Coliseum in Rome with purple flowers in the foregroundI’ve never quite gotten the whole Seven Wonders of the World thing. Isn’t wonder-ful subjective? What others find awe inspiring, I sometimes find shrugworthy. The Christ the Redeemer statue, for instance, which in 2007 was named one of the Seven Wonders of the New World, stirs absolutely nothing in me. Conversely, places that have amazed me (Australia’s Uluru being one) others have found mildly interesting at best.

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And how do we even define a “wonder”? Is it a great work of humanity? Is it a stunning natural landscape or phenomenon? Is it something that represents a monumental moment in time?

We, all of us, answer this question differently, which raises the question what are the “wonders” we have encountered on our travels?

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IndependentTraveler.com reached out to some of our contributing editors, as well as our readers on Twitter and Facebook for their lists of the wonders they’ve encountered on their travels.

Without further ado, here are our many Wonders of the World. Please share your list in the comments below.

Tree growing in the ruins of the Ta Prohm TempleBrittany Chrusciel, Contributing Editor
Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Mangal Mahadev (108-foot-tall Shiva statue), Ganga Talao, Mauritius

Jenny Szymanski Jones (via Facebook)
Victoria Falls, Zambia
Gulfoss Waterfall, Iceland
Grand Canyon, Arizona, U.S.A.

Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief
Petra, Jordan
Big Sur, California, U.S.A.
Fjords, Norway

A photograph of the Lotus Temple in New Delhi IndiaKingshuk Mazumder (@KingShuk03 via Twitter)
Lotus Temple, New Delhi, India

Erica Silverstein, Contributing Editor
Great Wall of China
Yosemite National Park, California, U.S.A.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

@jayme_p via Twitter
Magens Bay, St. Thomas, U.S. V.I.
Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

Jessica McMillan (@jedijesser via Twitter)
The Ink Pots, Banff, Alberta, Canada

Ruins at Masada IsraelChris Gray Faust, Contributing Editor
Pantheon, Rome, Italy
Masada, Israel

Ashley Kosciolek, Contributing Editor
Colosseum and Vatican City, Italy
Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland

–written by Dori Saltzman

passengers at airport baggage counterI remember the days when free wireless Internet in a hotel lobby, let alone your own room, was a luxury. Now, the lack of available Wi-Fi in any corner of a country is a deterrent to visitors who are used to the privilege.

In Germany, for instance, the lack of free and available Wi-Fi to tourists is such a problem it has reached the priority list of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Skift reports. According to the story, “Europe’s largest economy offers just 1.9 wireless hotspots per 10,000 inhabitants, compared with 4.8 in the U.S., 29 in the U.K. and 37 in South Korea, according to a study by Eco, a German association representing 800 Internet companies.” These restrictions are due to laws that hold public Internet providers responsible for the illegal activities of customers using their connection. By loosening these restrictions, Germany hopes to not only improve user accessibility, but the economy, through digital initiatives aimed at helping German technology companies compete with the likes of Facebook and Google, according to the story. So do your part by purchasing a stein of beer and Bavarian pretzel; Instagram said beer and pretzel and voila! Instant added marketing.

Nearby, Italy has the same idea, according to Engadget, but its plan is not just to improve Wi-Fi, but to make it free to the public. A recent proposal from lawmakers intends to create thousands of new hotspots over a three-year period, costing $6.3 million. Not only would it improve connection speeds for residents, but the popular tourist destination is hoping that visitors may be more encouraged to connect and share their trip during their time in Italy. See designer merchandise; tweet about your shopping spree — you get the idea.

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Many countries already offer readily available Internet in tourist hot zones such as airports, cafes, museums, you name it. France, recently named the most visited country in the world in 2013 according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, offers more than 260 hotspots in Paris alone. Hong Kong is another top destination with its own free, public Wi-Fi service. Last year, CNN reported on Taiwan when it became one of the first countries to not only offer free Wi-Fi on a mass scale to citizens, but also to visitors. The government-backed iTaiwan is now accessible with just a passport as ID at any tourism counter. The same is true in Japan, according to Mashable. Armed with just a passport, travelers can register for free Wi-Fi cards at the airport, for use at roughly 45,000 hotspots in Eastern Japan.

It’s hard to say whether the lack of Wi-Fi would affect my decision to go somewhere — I think I’d go anyway (heck, I just spent a full week in Grenada without any reception at all, so I guess there’s your answer). But looking back at how lost I was merely crossing the border into Canada without cell reception and with no immediate access to Google Maps, TripAdvisor or Yelp to guide my way around Montreal, a little free Wi-Fi certainly goes a long way.

In an era when many are torn between traveling to “get away from it all” and documenting their travels live, or using Internet research to get around, where do you stand? Has Wi-Fi become a necessity, or is it still a luxury?


– written by Brittany Chrusciel

bedroomI’m by no means a hotel snob. Give me a fair rate, a clean room and a comfortable bed, and I’m happy; throw in free breakfast (no matter how basic) and free Wi-Fi, and I’m over the moon. Alternative lodging tends to be more my thing — hostels when I was a carefree backpacker, tents for outdoorsy adventures and vacation rentals for family gatherings.

It’s no surprise then that I loved my first Airbnb stay. The concept is simple: Book space in someone’s home (a room, a bed, a guesthouse) for — hopefully — less than the cost of a standard hotel. We tried it out on a recent trip to see family in Los Angeles, and it was a much better choice than the hotel we were considering. Based on that experience, here are five reasons why Airbnb might be better than a hotel.

Location: We wanted to be close to my brother’s home, but the nearest hotels were a few miles away and quite pricey. When we turned to Airbnb, we found a rental located just three blocks — walking distance! — from his house in the same residential neighborhood. Because Airbnb properties can be anywhere, you’re not limited to business districts and busy boulevards — great if you want something off the beaten path or closer to atypical attractions (like family).

Space: For $200+ a night, my family of four could have shared one room in a hotel, forcing the adults to sit in the dark after 8:30 p.m. bedtimes, and relegating early riser babies (and their grudging grownup companions) to play in the bathroom with the door closed at 6:45 a.m. For a much lower rate, we instead booked a 1,000-square-foot, two-floor guesthouse. After putting the children to sleep upstairs, my husband and I hung out in the downstairs living space, kicking back on the L-shaped couch or snacking at the kitchen table, lights ablaze.

Amenities: So we didn’t get free breakfast with Airbnb. We did get free Wi-Fi, cookies, fruit and bottled water. We also were invited to use our hosts’ patio, pool and hot tub, and the art supplies in the crafts area of their guesthouse. My son and nephew had a rousing dance party listening to our hosts’ CDs on the upstairs stereo. My guess is you won’t get the same niceties renting out a bed in someone’s apartment, but you do benefit from being a guest in someone’s home, rather than a customer in someone’s corporate brand.

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Flexibility: Instead of worrying about strict check-in and check-out times that might interfere with naptime or force us out of our digs too early, we had the pleasure of working out arrangements that suited both our hosts and us. They had an outing planned the day we arrived, so they left a key for us to come at our leisure; when asked about check-out, their response was essentially “whenever.” Our last day was street cleaning day with a two-hour parking window on the other side; our host not only made sure we knew the rules, but let us park in his driveway so we wouldn’t have to keep moving our car.

Human Contact: I don’t often strike up conversations with the hotel check-in staff (other than to complain about my key card not working or the lack of a porta-crib), but we ran into our hosts twice and chatted pleasantly with them. Certainly, your experience will be much more social if you’re actually staying in your host’s home with them, rather than in a detached guesthouse, but either way it’s a fun way to meet people and learn about local culture.

That isn’t to say Airbnb doesn’t have its drawbacks. While our stay was wonderful, there’s a lot more room for properties to be less ideal than advertised, for hosts to cancel your reservation due to their personal needs, and for personality conflicts to detract from a stay with heavy interaction between you and your hosts (or additional guests). My colleague had an awkward first Airbnb stay, and my in-laws were a bit disappointed to learn they weren’t allowed to have a glass of wine on the verandah at their host’s place, due to a “no alcohol” policy not clearly delineated in the Airbnb listing. Not to mention that certain cities are questioning the legality of Airbnb stays in the first place.

But if you’re looking for accommodations that don’t fit the typical hotel bill, give it a try. At best, you’ll find just what you need at the right price; at worst, it’ll be a funny story a few years down the road (and you can soothe your soul by writing a biting review).

–written by Erica Silverstein

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two destinations at the extreme ends of the earth.

Would you rather …

… visit Longyearbyen, Norway, in the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, or …

longyearbyen svalbard norway



… travel to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina?

ushuaia argentina


Longyearbyen, with a population of just 2,000, is located on the island of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard chain. This part of the Arctic region is most popular with travelers looking to view polar bears in their natural habitat. At the other extreme is Ushuaia, near the very southern tip of South America — a common jumping-off point for cruises to Antarctica.

Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

With Thanksgiving turkey as the gateway drug to Christmastime, settle into your relatives’ couch post-meal and delight in this vignette of a Christmas market in Berlin, complete with winter amusement park; it’s a perfect primer for what makes this time of year such an all-sensory experience.

Somewhere between stuffing and pie, we hope you can fit in a few daydreams about Germany’s uber-charming Christmas markets, and the magic of the season that extends worldwide.


Christmas Markets: Europe and Beyond

– written by Brittany Chrusciel