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A recent business trip to South America left me with two unexpectedly free days in Buenos Aires. I welcomed the free time but was overwhelmed by the abundance of places to see and things to do in only two days. Should I visit art museums? Waste away an afternoon in a cafe or wander the streets? Where could I eat steak among locals instead of tourists?

woman on cell phone in buenos aires


To help me narrow down my choices, I turned to the new travel app TripScout.

Think of TripScout as a worldly, trustworthy friend who has spent a lot of time in the city you’re visiting. The night before your trip, your friend cuts apart your guidebook and hands you only the pages about sights worth seeing.

TripScout provides highly curated lists of activities, sights, restaurants and hotels in 50 major cities around the world (with more cities being added regularly). The app is ideal for travelers who are overwhelmed by an infinite number of options and for those who don’t have time to fully research a destination.

Buenos Aires Travel Guide

I stayed at a TripScout-recommended hotel and was pleased with its accurate description and location. While walking through Buenos Aires’ main plaza, I turned to the city guide to learn a bit of history about the pink-hued executive mansion called Casa Rosada. Thinking it was a government building, I definitely would have walked right past the neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana had TripScout not informed me it was actually the church where Pope Francis was archbishop. I went in and saw some of the most gorgeous stained-glass windows I’ve ever seen.

At the app’s recommendation, I visited the famous Recoleta Cemetery, the first public cemetery in Buenos Aires and the final resting place of Eva Peron and other famous locals. I arrived at the cemetery 30 minutes before closing and was grateful to listen to the app’s two-minute audio overview. That let me maximize my time, photographing the oversized, ornate mausoleums instead of staring at my phone or flipping through a book to figure out what I was seeing.

Another great aspect of this app is its offline maps. I didn’t want to waste my limited international phone data searching for maps online, nor did I want to brand myself a tourist and make myself a target of petty crime by using a paper map in public.

Although TripScout is free to download, it includes only very basic information. The real value is in the individual city guides, which cost $0.99 to $2.99 to download.

How to Create the Perfect Itinerary
What Not to Do in a New City

— 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, February 13, 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 Rajiv Agrawala, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery country was South Africa. Rajiv has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Imagine Costa Rica, and you probably picture lush rain forests, smoking volcanos and exotic birds flitting through the trees. But while this image isn’t inaccurate, a local expert named Maricruz Pereira knows that there’s much more to this friendly Central American country.

maricruz pereira


Pereira is the general manager and co-owner of Unique Adventures, which specializes in customized experiences and tailor-made itineraries for visitors to Costa Rica. The company can arrange activities such as bird watching, kayaking, visiting a coffee plantation or learning to make tortillas.

We asked Pereira to reveal her favorite less-discovered spots in Costa Rica, offer advice for first-time visitors and more.

IndependentTraveler.com: Most people considering a trip to Costa Rica probably picture wildlife and natural beauty, but what interesting cultural experiences can travelers have there?
Maricruz Pereira:
Even though Costa Rica is mostly known for its beautiful nature, I think our best asset is our people. Tourists will find that Costa Ricans are very proud of our country and love to share it with our visitors. The best cultural experience would be to hang out with the locals whenever possible. You can do this by going on a pub/beer crawl in San Jose, going to the local fiestas in any village, stopping in a farmers’ market and even joining a mejenga (impromptu soccer game) in the local plaza! Talk to the locals; ask questions; don’t be afraid to approach them. You will go back home with a nice tan and a bunch of new friends!

IT: What are your favorite places in Costa Rica, and why?
MP:
There are so many places to love in Costa Rica! I enjoy the majesty of our several active volcanoes. Some of them, like the Poas and the Irazu, are safe and relatively easy to explore; you can walk right up to the rim of the crater and gaze inside. The beaches in the south Caribbean are wild and beautiful, with the lush forest coming all the way down to the beach, and the laid-back, colorful Caribbean culture that makes you slow down and enjoy the moment. They are perfect for relaxing and getting away from the crowds.

Of course, Corcovado National Park, which is my favorite rain forest, is so remote and secluded; it is a real adventure just getting there. And then you find yourself immersed in the rain forest, with the ocean at your feet, and the howler monkeys and scarlet macaws “singing” just a few meters away.

IT: What advice would you give first-time visitors before they come to Costa Rica?
MP:
Different latitude, different attitude. Don’t plan on being locked up in an all-inclusive for several days in a row. As much as I like our beaches, Costa Rica has a different vibe to it. It’s not all about sun and sea (although that’s a nice part too), but about traveling around, going on our roads, seeing the sights, exploring. And if you are renting a car, ask for a GPS!

rio celeste tenorio volcano national park waterfall


IT: Which part of Costa Rica is most overlooked, and why should travelers check it out?
MP:
The area of Rio Celeste in the northern area is a jewel that is yet to be discovered. Inside Tenorio Volcano National Park there is this magnificent river and waterfall that are bright blue (hence the name Rio Celeste). It’s a moderately difficult hike within the forest with quite a few steep steps to get there, but the view and the energy of the area are worth it!

IT: What’s one food every traveler should try in Costa Rica?
MP:
Chifrijo! It’s a delicious concoction of rice, beans, avocado, pico de gallo and small pieces of fried pork, served with toasted tortillas in a medium-sized bowl. Don’t be fooled by the small size. It’s a full meal!

IT: Outside of Costa Rica, what are your favorite travel destinations?
MP:
I enjoy England very much. I have always loved everything related to its history and tradition. I especially like visiting the old, magical places like Stonehenge, Glastonbury, Avebury… I find all the tales and stories around these sites fascinating, and the scenery is just breathtaking!

Check out more travel interviews!

12 Best Costa Rica Experiences
Where to Stay in Costa Rica

–interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

Before you head to the airport for a flight, it’s a wise idea to check how long you should expect to wait at the security checkpoint. Knowing this info ahead of time can help you decide if you should depart earlier than you planned and get you mentally prepared if there’s a long queue.

woman on phone at airport


Unfortunately, it’s hard to know where to find this information. The Transportation Security Administration provides updates on its website, but the data isn’t updated consistently, and it only covers U.S. airports. Major airports with their own apps and Twitter feeds generally don’t provide real-time checkpoint wait times.

A number of travel tech companies are trying to do better, feeding historic data into super-secret algorithms to determine airport security wait times and making that info available in apps. Using Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as an example, I took a look at a few of these free airport security apps — along with the TSA’s website — to see how they compare.

My TSA: The TSA has a simple-to-use website called “View Security Wait Times.” But the agency relies on fliers to provide updates, and that isn’t happening often enough. On Monday evening, for example, the wait time at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport hadn’t been updated on TSA’s website in six hours. Was there still only a 10-minute wait at the main checkpoint? It’s impossible to know.

flightSpeak: This app provides security wait times plus maps, dining options, Wi-Fi info and direct links to airport Twitter accounts for hundreds of airports around the world. On the main page for Atlanta on flightSpeak, it showed Atlanta’s wait time as 10 to 20 minutes. Yet this was not wholly accurate.

If you happen to click on that timespan on the app — there’s no prompt to click on it; I just happened to touch that feature when exploring the page — it shows a new page explaining that the 10- to 20-minute wait is the aggregate time for the entire airport. It then breaks down wait times according to five checkpoint locations. The main checkpoint, it says, is actually a 30- to 40-minute wait. So the wait could potentially be four times longer than I had been expecting. And I don’t know when the data was last updated, because it doesn’t say.

MiFlight: This savvy app crowdsources wait times at more than 150 airports. When I selected Atlanta’s Concourse F, in the international terminal, MiFlight told me the wait was 30 minutes, with info updated within the past five minutes.

The app is pretty in its design and singular in its purpose, but it took me a few tries to figure out how to navigate.

Fleet: This crowdsourced app provides info on a few dozen major airports. When I entered a late-night flight from Atlanta to Santiago, Chile, the app told me that my particular Delta flight has a history of being on time 93 percent of the time, then revealed that the check-in desk and security lines were “not crowded.” As of when? And how do you define “not crowded”? It was hard to know.

Strangely enough, though, I felt a greater comfort level with the vaguer description than I did with other apps’ specific time frames.

The app goes on to provide additional helpful details about the flight, including flying time, the cost of checked bags, even how much carbon I used for this flight.

Bottom line: None of these sources seems 100 percent trustworthy 100 percent of the time. Use them as a general guideline, but continue to follow best practices for domestic and international departures based on when you’re flying.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster
10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security

— 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.” Multi-word cities or countries are scrambled into one word, so “San Juan” might appear as SJAANUN. (Hint: This week there is one multi-word country.) Identify all four mystery cities to win.

DONNOL, NUOITGNMIEDKD

OEIVMEODNT, AUUYGRU

ANASSU, BHSMAAA

GRONABALE, DAIIN


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

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM

MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY

NASSAU, BAHAMAS

BANGALORE, INDIA


— created by Sarah Schlichter

Ever wanted to read in bed at a hotel without waking your spouse, or needed a little extra light while working on a crossword puzzle during a long flight? If so, you might like the Beam n Read.

beam n read reading light


I tested two versions of this personal reading light — the LED 6 Hands-Free Task Light and the LED 3 Hands-Free Travel & Reading Light. Both run on four AA batteries (not included) and are worn around your neck on an elastic cord that can be adjusted for length. The LED 3 is a less expensive travel version with only three small LED bulbs, while the LED 6 has six bulbs and casts a wider glow.

You can turn on each device by flipping the light into position for reading. The LED 6 has a switch that toggles between turning on all six bulbs and turning on just three, which is useful if you don’t always want quite as much light.

Both reading lights come with two filters — one red, one orange. These are designed to block out blue light, which can cause eyestrain. Using one of these filters makes for a dimmer light that some users find relaxing, especially before bed.

After testing each light in a dark room, I found them both adequate for reading or other handheld tasks (such as knitting or writing), but, unsurprisingly, the wider LED 6 was better for illuminating a whole open book or magazine. Because both lights use the same number of batteries, there’s very little difference in size or weight between them — so if you can spare the extra $10, I’d recommend getting the larger version. It won’t take up much extra space in your suitcase, and you’ll get more light.

The one advantage of the LED 3 model is that the batteries will last longer. That said, you can purchase a USB/AC power kit (sold separately) that enables you to plug the light into a wall socket when available, saving the batteries for when they’re necessary.

You can learn more about Beam n Read at ReadingLight.com. You can also purchase on Amazon: see the LED 6 ($29.95), the LED 3 ($19.95) and the USB/AC Power Kit ($14.95).

Would you try the Beam n Read?

The 12 Best Travel Gadgets for Any Trip
Which Travel Clothes Are Worth the Money?

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

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 national park is known for its unique rock formations.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, January 9, 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 Vanessa, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Bryce National Park in Utah. Vanessa 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 stories you may have missed from around the travel world.

australian passport


The End of Passports? How Australia Plans to Make Travel Documents Obsolete by 2020
The Telegraph reports that Australia is pioneering a new “contactless passenger identification system” involving facial recognition technology and fingerprint scanners. These will theoretically take the place of passports and paper landing cards by the year 2020.

How to Save Money on Your Next Flight With an Airfare Predictor
U.S. News & World Report offers an in-depth examination of airfare prediction tools such as Kayak, Google Flights and the Hopper app. Using such tools could help you decide when to pull the trigger on booking your airfare.

16 Mesmerizing Pictures of Patagonia
Feast your eyes on these Rough Guides photos of Patagonia, complete with craggy mountains, glittering lakes and cool-blue glaciers.

First Low-Cost Asian Airline Cleared for Flights to the U.S.
Cheaper fares to Asia could be in store for Americans. CNN reports that AirAsia, a budget airline based in Malaysia, has just been approved to fly to the United States. Though the fares might be cheap, passengers would have to pay extra for meals and bags.

This Artist’s Amazing Sketchbooks Could Be the Inspiration You Need to Start a Travel Journal
Lonely Planet profiles a traveler named Dina Brodsky, who has shared the stunning sketches from her travel journal on Instagram. (If you don’t have much artistic talent, it’ll make you wish you did!)

How Airline Passenger Rights May Change in 2017
As the U.S. makes the transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, Conde Nast Traveler investigates which air traveler protections will likely stay in place and which might be on the chopping block.

Meet Mr. & Mrs. Smith: The Couple Curating the World’s Best Hotel Collection You’ve Never Heard Of
Forbes profiles the founders of MrandMrsSmith.com, a website that curates and reviews the best boutique and luxury hotels around the world.

This week’s viral video, featuring northern lights footage captured by a passenger on a flight between New York and Iceland, has been viewed more than 340,000 times on YouTube.


10 Things You Don’t Know About Passports
9 Best Places to Travel in 2017

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Are you an expert in packing light? You could use a new app called Airmule to sell the extra space in your suitcase. You’ll be serving as a “mule” — or personal courier — for shipments arranged through the app.

airmule


Here’s how it works: You download the Airmule app (which is currently only available on iOS), list your trip — including the flight details and how much suitcase space you wish to sell — and wait for a shipment inquiry to come in. Once you accept the inquiry, Airmule will make sure you get the delivery item before your flight, either by mailing it to you or bringing it to you in person. In most cases another Airmule representative will meet you at your destination airport to pick up the item and forward it to its final destination. (In other cases you may need to arrange a transfer once you arrive.)

Airmule works with TSA-certified shipping companies and inspects all items before they’re given to you. Packages are insured up to $200.

Travelers serving as mules earn $150 per luggage space, minus a $1 processing fee. Sell space in two suitcases on a roundtrip flight, and you could make nearly $600 on your trip — perhaps enough to pay for the whole flight!

While it sounds like an easy way to make money while traveling, there’s one drawback: The service is currently only available for shipping between the United States and China.

When we tested the app, we were able to see available mules for other trips, such as New York to London. We reached out to Airmule about the issue, and a spokesperson responded: “Though we do allow people to list travel anywhere, we currently actively support only U.S. and China. We will support additional countries very soon. This is because we want to ensure a high volume of shipments for travelers when we open a new channel.”

So if a trip to the Great Wall is on your bucket list, keep the app in mind as a way to earn money toward your vacation. Otherwise, you may have to wait for the service to expand in the future. Learn more at Airmule.com.

Would you try Airmule?

11 Things Not to Do on a Plane
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every year, the European Union selects two cities to be designated European Capitals of Culture. Activities all year long show off the cities’ charms. Destinations large and small are selected; some are well known, while others may be new to travelers.

The latter is likely the case with the 2017 selections: Aarhus, Denmark, and Pafos, Cyprus. Here’s a primer on both cities.

aarhus denmark


Aarhus, Denmark
Where: In the geographic center of Denmark, northwest of Copenhagen.

Why It’s Noteworthy: The second largest city in Denmark (after Copenhagen), Aarhus was founded as a fortified Viking settlement. Today it’s best known as music epicenter, especially for jazz and rock aficionados. Cruise ships stop there, and its port is one of the most important in Northern Europe.

Top Sights: Many of the city’s 1.4 million annual visitors tour its art and historical museums, the Old Town Open Air Museum and nearby Botanical Gardens, and the Tivoli Friheden amusement park. Wandering the city, you’ll see architecture representing a number of eras, from Romanesque and Gothic to Nordic classicism and Functionalism.

Don’t Miss: Nibbling on a typical Danish smorrebrod (buttered bread) at one of the city’s oldest taverns, Peter Gift, which dates back to 1906.

Special Events: Festivals, exhibits, author talks, concerts and other activities are planned. The city will be decked out with special garden installations between April and September. The Royal Danish Theatre will perform a Viking saga called “Rode Orm” from May 24 through July 1.

More Info: Aarhus2017.dk

agios georgios pafos cyprus


Pafos, Cyprus
Where: On the southwest coast of the Mediterranean island.

Why It’s Noteworthy: Pafos (also spelled Paphos) is home to Aphrodite’s Rock, a beach outcrop that’s considered to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess of love and beauty.

Top Sights: The whole city is on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List, and picturesque scenes are at every turn. The Temple of Aphrodite attracts many pilgrims. Pafos also has a Byzantine castle, catacombs and a museum displaying archaeological artifacts.


Don’t Miss: An afternoon exploring the cliffs and beach near Aphrodite’s Rock. If you take a swim around the rock, it’s said that you will be blessed with eternal beauty.

Special Events: Because Pafos boasts spectacular weather year-round, organizers are planning many activities outdoors. Expect monthly exhibits, walking tours, performances, food events and nature outings.

More Info: Pafos2017.eu

Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide
Top 25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma