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Check out the stories you may have missed from around the travelsphere.

travel photographer


Travel Photographer of the Year: 2016 Winners Revealed
Feast your eyes on CNN’s gallery of the best travel photos of the year, which capture the world’s people and places in striking fashion.

Five Myths About Travel Photography
Want to create award-winning travel shots of your own someday? Start with these tips from USA Today.

On the Streets of San Telmo
This piece from the Globe and Mail is a funny and thoughtful personal essay about a tango lesson in Buenos Aires.

Inside the World’s First Year-Round Ice Hotel
Forbes offers gorgeous pictures from ICEHOTEL 365, located north of the Arctic Circle in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden. It’s the world’s first permanent snow and ice hotel. (Most are only open in the colder months.)

What a Trip: Retiring Travel Writer Ellen Creager Tells All
Think travel pros never have snafus on the road? Think again. A veteran travel writer for the Detroit Free Press shares some of her funniest anecdotes of trips gone awry over the years.

This Instagrammer’s Fairytale Images of Moscow in the Snow Are Dazzlingly Gorgeous
We swooned over this collection of wintry Moscow photos from Lonely Planet. Put Russia on our must-visit list!

15 Tweets That Describe the Hilarious Hell of Holiday Travel
Have a laugh at this amusing roundup of holiday travel tweets from the Huffington Post. Our favorite: “If you put your bag in overhead bin near row 7 & you sit in row 20, I am putting you on Santa’s naughty list!! #Grinchmas #Holiday Travel” We couldn’t agree more.

This week’s video is the annual “Christmas Miracle” offering from Canadian airline WestJet, featuring a heartwarming gift to the community of Fort McMurray after it was devastated by wildfires earlier this year.


12 Things You Don’t Photograph — But Should
Don’t Make These Travel Photography Mistakes

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Today is the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and while many of us dread the season’s chilly days and long nights, here at IndependentTraveler.com we’re looking on the bright side. Pack your snowboots and mittens, and join us for a virtual trip around the world’s winter wonderlands.

northern lights norway


Norway is one of several countries where you can see the northern lights color the night sky.

yaksaam temple winter south korea


Yaksaam Temple is part of Geumosan Provincial Park in South Korea.

quebec city


Quebec City celebrates winter with numerous activities, including toboggan rides along Terrasse Dufferin.

japan snow monkeys


Outside of Nagano, Japan, visitors can get up close and personal with snow monkeys keeping warm in the area’s hot springs.

vatnajokull glacier iceland


In winter, you can hike through one of the ice caves near Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland.

bryce canyon in the snow utah


Utah’s spectacular Bryce Canyon, a national park, looks even more striking under a dusting of snow.

moscow in the snow


Moscow‘s famously chilly winters make for picturesque scenes like this one.

Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Winter?
How to Pack for a Winter Vacation

— written by Sarah Schlichter

From amateur shoots by first-time travelers to travel company promos and professionally produced films, 2016 has been a stellar year for capturing the world in video. Below are the four best travel videos of the bunch (plus a bonus video that I simply can’t get out of my mind).

The Inspiring Story of Blind Surfer Derek Rabelo
Many travel company videos are straightforward commercials promoting their products. But Turkish Airlines took a different approach this year with a touching film about blind surfer Derek Rabelo. His perspective on the ocean, for example, forces you to reexamine yours. More than 9 million people have viewed the three-minute video, which is in Turkish with English subtitles.



New York City Drone Film Festival Montage
Drone videos are all the rage among amateur and professional videographers alike, and so many are stunning that it’s hard to pick one as the best of the year. The 2016 New York City Drone Film Festival released a 2.5-minute montage of the best scenes from its 2016 submissions. My favorite snippet was the volcano flyby.



China: A Skier’s Journey
Chad Sayers and Forrest Coots contrast two ski cultures in China — the emerging middle class that is starting to embrace skiing as a leisure sport, and peoples who have skied for thousands of years as a means of survival. The staff at Vimeo selected this 16.5-minute film as the top travel pick of 2016.



This Magic World
Mexican student Mariana Osorio won International Student.com’s annual travel video contest this year with a sweet and sad 4.5-minute video that’s part autobiography, part travelogue. Osorio wrote an original song about how her violin skills gave her the ticket out of her small Mexican village — which is plagued by drug cartel activity — and into New York City.



Bonus Video: Autumn Leaves
Here’s the bonus video. Admittedly, it was first shared in late 2015, but I didn’t have the opportunity to see it until 2016. It’s easily one of my favorite videos of all time. A polite Korean tourist visiting Florence surprised some local street musicians by asking if he could join them. He took up a spot next to the contrabass and led a peppy rendition of “Autumn Leaves.” Though the musicians don’t speak the same language, they communicate beautifully through music, and feed off each other’s energy in this impromptu jam session near the Florence Duomo. The video is pure joy, and captures the essence of what travel is all about.



4 Travel Videos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go
5 Recommended TED Talks on Travel

— 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 famous mountain has more than half a dozen routes to the top.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, December 19, 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 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 Harriette Henderson, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Harriette 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 what’s worth reading in the travel world from the past week.

woman with phone on plane


The U.S. Government May Allow In-Flight Phone Calls, and People Are Freaking Out
Business Insider reports on a recent proposal from the U.S. Department of Transportation that would require airlines and booking agents to state in advance whether passengers are allowed to make voice calls on flights. Passengers are currently not allowed to make voice calls via their cell phones on certain radio frequencies, but there are no rules against chatting via Wi-Fi using services such as Skype.

50 Reasons to #LovetheWorld
Clicking through this gallery from BBC will spark your wanderlust all over again. The site has reached out to dozens of contributers and travelers for anecdotes from incredible journeys around the world.

Conquering Choquequirao: The Long Walk to Peru’s Lesser-Known ‘Lost City’
Lonely Planet takes us on a hike to the long-hidden Incan citadel of Choquequirao, which currently only gets about a dozen visitors a day but may become more accessible in the near future.

Next Year Is Shaping Up to Be Another Good One for Airlines — and Travelers
How about some good news for your holiday season via NBC News? Among the findings in this report: Fares are falling, traveler satisfaction with airlines in North America has reached a 10-year high and a couple of airlines have brought back free in-flight snacks.

Cuba’s Young Artists Embrace a New World
This National Geographic feature offers fascinating photos and stories from the young people of Cuba, where “individualism is creeping out into the open” after the recent death of Fidel Castro.

‘Basic Economy’ Fares Make Sense: Opposing View
When United recently announced that its new Basic Economy fares would not include overhead bin access, many travelers and news outlets responded with outrage. But this piece on USA Today makes the case for these bargain-basement fares, arguing that while they won’t suit everyone, they fill a niche for price-sensitive travelers who don’t need many amenities.

Rome’s Sad Christmas Tree Gets a Makeover After Residents Complain
When in Rome … you’d better not have a skimpy Christmas tree. Conde Nast Traveler reports on a recent controversy over the tree in the Italian capital, which was dubbed the “Austerity Tree” by disgruntled locals. Its decorations have since been, er, spruced up.

This week’s video offers an intimate look at everyday life in Bali.


How to Get the Best Airplane Seat
11 Things Not to Do on a Plane

— written by Sarah Schlichter

The STM Drifter Backpack makes an attractive option for travelers who bring laptops, tablets or both when they hit the road. There’s room not just for your devices and chargers, but also for travel documents, a book or magazine for the plane, and even a change of clothes. You can also use the bag at home for commuting or hiking.

stm drifter backpack


After taking the bag for a quick spin, here’s what we liked — and didn’t like so much — about the STM Drifter.

What We Liked
It’s comfortable to wear. The back is well padded, and the adjustable back and sternum straps make it easy to distribute the bag’s weight.

It feels sturdy. Everything from the heavy-duty zippers to the thick, well-padded straps feels durable and well made.

It’s got lots of storage. There are three pockets on the front of the bag, including one fitted with slots for pens and other small items, and one that’s padded for a cell phone. On one side is a pocket for a water bottle or umbrella; on the other is a small zippered compartment. In the main section of the bag are a see-through mesh pocket (with zipper), one large open pocket, padded sleeves for a laptop and tablet, and a few other nooks and crannies. The sleeves for your devices “float” above the bottom of the main compartment, helping to protect them if you drop the pack.

It’s got a rain cover. Hidden away in zippered compartment at the bottom of the bag is a thin rain cover that you can pull up to protect the bag. (Mustard yellow isn’t the most attractive color for it, but its high visibility might be an advantage if you’re walking or biking on a gray, rainy day.)

It’s easy to pair with a wheeled suitcase. There’s a wide strap on the back that lets you slip the pack down the extendable handle of a rolling suitcase.

What We Didn’t Like
It won’t work for large laptops. The bag is meant for 15-inch computers, but will hold most 11- to 16-inch laptops. If your machine is larger, you’ll need to try a different bag.

The main compartment doesn’t unzip very far. This is a top-loading bag, and the zippers for the main compartment don’t extend too far down the sides, so it’s not as easy as it might be with other bags to reach in from the side to grab something, or to find things at the very bottom.

It’s expensive. At a price point of $135 to $140 (depending on where you buy it), the STM Drifter is pricier than most other laptop backpacks.

The Bottom Line
This is a good-quality laptop backpack that’s ideal for both traveling and commuting, but the price point may make it a stretch for some travelers.

You can buy the STM Drifter at the STM website or at Amazon.com.

How to Pack Efficiently: 8 Products That Can Help
12 Best Travel Gadgets for Any Trip

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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.

For the second year in a row, one hotel chain’s rewards program has been chosen as the provider of the best overall benefits to travelers.

hotel reception


Wyndham Rewards is the top overall hotel rewards program, according to a study by WalletHub, a website that provides credit advice to consumers. Wyndham’s program appeals just as much to those who travel infrequently as it does to those who travel a lot, and it ranked highly for its ease of achieving top membership status, number of hotels where rewards can be used and minimal blackout dates, among other attributes.

WalletHub pitted 12 hotel rewards programs against one other, examining 21 key metrics, including point values, blackout dates, brand exclusions and expiration policies. The top 10 brands, in order:

1. Wyndham Rewards
2. Best Western Rewards
3. Marriott Rewards
4. Club Carlson
5. La Quinta Returns
6. Hyatt Gold Passport
7. Drury Gold Key Club
8. Hilton HHonors
9. Choice Privileges
10. The Ritz-Carlton Rewards

La Quinta Returns was deemed to offer the best rewards value, offering up to $14.17 in rewards value for every $100 the hotel guest spends. Meanwhile, Best Western is the only brand among the 12 whose points do not expire if your account stays inactive for a while. The majority of hotel rewards points expire after 18 to 24 months of inactivity.

The study also found that the majority of the 12 brands have maintained or exceeded their programs’ value this year vs. last year.

“I think the typical consumer generally overvalues the benefits of hotel rewards program membership and underestimates the commitment required to obtain those benefits,” Professor Sung H. Ham of George Washington University wrote as part of the study.

Receiving free nights in a hotel is admittedly attractive, Ham said, but it requires a big commitment from the consumer. “Even if consumers are motivated to achieve the free night, consumers may still overvalue the rewards that can be obtained from being loyal,” Ham said. “Loyal consumers are less likely to engage in price comparisons and may ultimately end up paying more for each stay to earn the free night award.”

That being said, being a part of a hotel loyalty program can often provide non-monetary benefits, such as more personalized service, says Professor Lei Huang of the State University of New York at Fredonia.

Are you a member of a hotel rewards program?

7 Smart Reasons to Join a Hotel Rewards Program
Smart Tactics to Get More from Your Hotel Points
The Trouble with Hotel Reward Programs

–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, December 12, 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 Laura, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery country was Argentina. Laura has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Check out what you might have missed around the travel world this week.

airplane passenger


British Airways Has Patented a ‘Digital Pill’ to Make Flying Easier — But Is It Really Necessary?
The Independent reports on a bizarre new patent filed by British Airways, involving passengers swallowing a small digital chip that will transmit information such as their body temperature and stomach acidity level in order to help the cabin crew better tend to their physical needs. Useful … or creepy?

The 10 Most Beautiful Places in Italy — as Voted by You
Rough Guides is here with your weekly dose of travel porn: droolworthy photos from around the Boot, from Florence to Cinque Terre. Swoon!

Meet Bette Nash: She Might Just Be the World’s Oldest Serving Flight Attendant
We enjoyed this fun profile from CNN of an 80-year-old flight attendant who’s been serving in the skies for nearly 60 years.

Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive
Caution: You may get hungry reading this essay from Roads & Kingdoms about “Brother Lamp,” a noodle expert in Chongqing, China. The author of the story joins Brother Lamp to try dozens of bowls of xiaomian, breakfast noodles made with various vegetables and meats.

Learn How This Couple Is Traveling the World on $24 a Day
Need a little travel inspiration? Check out this story from the Washington Post about a couple who have trimmed their travel budget down to a mere $12.20 per person, per day, thanks to tactics such as traveling by bus and searching for local guesthouses that don’t advertise online.

Online Booking Is, Like, So ’90s: The Humble Travel Agent Is Making a Comeback
NBC News reports on the resurgence of travelers using agents to book all or part of their trips. “It’s time versus money. A lot of people just don’t have the time or the expertise to plan a trip and do it well,” says one travel agent quoted in the story.

50 Reasons to Love the World
Get inspired as you click through this gorgeous gallery from BBC, in which various travelers share their photos and travel memories.

This week’s video takes us to Havana and beyond in a voyage around Cuba.


Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter

We recently introduced you to a travel startup whose staff designs long-weekend getaways without revealing your destination until just before you depart. All of the destinations on Pack Up + Go are medium or large cities in the United States and are usually just three or four hours from your departure point.

adventurous traveler leaping in the mountains


Apparently, that’s not intrepid enough for some travelers. Another new travel company called Jubel plans longer themed journeys to overseas locales.

Like Pack Up + Go, Jubel will design a custom trip based on your destinations of interest, preferred activities and budget. First you choose a theme — such as “party purist,” “culturist” or “chilled nature.” (These can be combined.) Then you fill out an extensive survey that details such preferences as hotel budget, scenery desires, transport options and how much (or how little) of the trip you want to be a mystery.

You can be as vague or as specific as you’d like in telling the staff where you want to go. If it’s mid-winter, you’re fed up with the cold and you just want to go “someplace warm,” that’s enough info for Jubel’s team to plan your vacation. But you can also be more specific — museum hopping in southern Europe, for example, or a rain forest destination in Ecuador.

After conducting research about your trip and curating a personalized experience, your Jubel travel consultant will send you at least one proposal, purposely vague enough that the trip will be a surprise (if that’s what you request) but detailed enough for you to make a decision. If you decide you want to make a booking, you’ll need to pay a deposit of 50 percent of the trip’s estimated total cost, which varies based on the length of your trip and your budget constraints.

“I never realized how mentally taxing doing all those travel details [was] until I was completely freed of them,” one traveler, Filip Victor, says in a testimonial on Jubel’s website.

Once you’re paid up, Jubel provides travelers with a sealed envelope revealing your destination. If that’s the maximum amount of surprise your nerves can handle, Jubel can provide the full itinerary too.

But if you’re more adventurous than that, Jubel will provide a pack of sealed envelopes to be opened during your trip. They contain details about different legs of your adventure, so the “Mission Impossible”-esque surprises continue as your trip progresses … should you choose to accept them.

The Healing Power of Travel
12 Ways to Be More Spontaneous When You Travel

Would you try Jubel?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma