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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 streets for strolling.

Would you rather…

… wander down this quiet cobblestone street in the Tuscan village of Sorano, Italy, or …

sorano italy tuscany flowers lane



… explore the vibrant city streets of Osaka, Japan?

osaka japan night street


Are you energized by bustling cities, or would you rather lose yourself in a quiet village? Sorano is one of Italy’s many medieval hill towns, home to several picturesque churches as well as a castle, Fortezza Orsini. Meanwhile, Osaka is Japan’s third largest city, boasting endless shops, major museums (including the National Museum of Art) and the country’s oldest Buddhist temple, Shitennoji.

11 Best Italy Experiences
12 Best Japan Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Here’s something fun to kick off your weekend. It’s a travel-themed picture puzzle. You just have to tie the photos together to make words. For example, a photo of an eye, combined with a photo of a full glass of water would be eye + full = Eiffel. Get it? (For another example, check out last week’s puzzle.)

This week’s puzzle is two words and represents a important natural attraction in Europe.

Once you think you know the answer, post it below. You have until Monday, March 3, 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 travel mug. 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 Caprice Kutz, who correctly guessed that the pictogram spelled “Danube Delta.” Caprice has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.


– written and created by Dori Saltzman

new york times travel showLooking for inspiration for your next trip (or simply an escape from all this winter cold)? If you’re in the New York metro area, don’t miss the New York Times Travel Show this weekend. Held at the Jacob K. Javits Center on Saturday and Sunday, March 1 and 2, the show features exhibition booths, giveaways, book signings and a full line-up of travel seminars.

Besides walking the exhibition floor, you can see IndependentTraveler.com contributor Chris Gray Faust give a talk on Sunday at 3 p.m. on how to “Chronicle Your Adventures Like the Professionals Do: Impress Your Friends and Family.”

If you’re interested in cruising, don’t miss Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic (our sister site), at the Ask the Expert Q and A, scheduled for 3 p.m. on Saturday. Carolyn is also speaking Sunday at 2 p.m. on “The Best Cruise at the Best Price: Everything You Need to Know.”

Other speakers include travel experts Arthur and Pauline Frommer, “10,000 Places to See Before You Die” author Patricia Schultz, CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg and Conde Nast Traveler columnist Wendy Perrin.

9 Tips to Get the Most Out of a Travel Show

The show is open to the public Saturday, March 1, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, March 2, from 11 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets cost $17 for adults, with children 18 and under admitted free. More information is at NYTTravelShow.com.

*Not in the New York area? See our list of 2014 travel shows around the U.S. and Canada.

– written by Chris Gray Faust

classroom polish studentsThroughout my travels, I’ve learned that the best way for globetrotters to immerse themselves in a destination and its culture is to stay for as long as possible and mingle with locals daily. That can be difficult for average folks like me who hold jobs and can’t exactly afford to scamper off for weeks at a time. But there are ways to do it inexpensively — like teaching, for example.

English teachers are in high demand in countries like Chile, China, Thailand, Spain, Poland, Italy and France, and programs exist to send willing native speakers abroad for free (or at least to cover their costs while they’re in town) in an effort to bolster student learning.

Take, for example, the Teaching English in Poland program, run by the Kosciuszko Foundation. I applied and spent one month of my first post-college summer at an English immersion camp, instructing teens in the tiny town of Limanowa. The program paid for everything but my flights: housing, food, and trips to places like Krakow, Warsaw and Zakopane on weekends. It even provided a small stipend, which was a welcome surprise at the end of my time there.

Living Abroad: 4 Ways to Make It Happen

I made tons of amazing friends with my fellow American teachers, as well as the Polish staff. I’m still in touch with several of them and with many of the students I taught. I quickly adapted to a life with no air-conditioning, no baseball (although we did try to teach the students how to play), crosses on the walls of every classroom, and surpluses of churches and vodka. I took a semester of Polish in college before embarking on the adventure, but my ability to actually speak it improved markedly with each day.

Other “programs” aren’t really programs at all, however. In fact, English-speaking travelers are often approached to teach while they’re already abroad — no experience needed. In China, for instance, teachers providing private English lessons aren’t required to have an education background or even a work visa.

If diving into a new place and imparting knowledge while doing it sound appealing, be sure you’re signing up for something reputable. Sites such as InterExchange.org, TransitionsAbroad.com and TeachAway.com are good places to start your research. If you’re being compensated for your time (or if the program is paying for your expenses), keep in mind that your goal should be to serve as an educator first and a tourist second. Even if you never venture beyond the town in which you’re staying, you’ll be surprised by how much you gain just from spending time with your students; you’ll learn as much from them as they will from you.

Living Abroad: 12 Tips from Travelers Who’ve Been There

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

businessman dreaming of vacationPeople who don’t use their vacation time are starving the economy.

Okay, maybe that’s a little bit of an oversimplification, but a new study by Oxford Economics conducted on behalf of the U.S. Travel Association found that Americans who chose not to use all of their paid time off deprive the economy of $160 billion in total business sales and $21 billion in tax revenues.

And while not all of that money would be derived from folks traveling — after all, not everyone will be able to splurge on a getaway and will instead opt for a staycation — a lot of it would be.

For instance, the report states that if all unused personal time were successfully converted to travel, leisure travel spending would be $99 billion dollars greater. Of course, that’s not going to happen, but the report estimates an additional $67 billion could realistically be converted into travel spending.

The reason the dollar amounts are so high is that a staggering 42 percent of Americans ended 2013 with unused vacation days. Of that 42 percent, the average amount of unused vacation time was 8.1 days — enough time for a road trip through California’s national parks, a relaxing cruise or two to three extended weekend getaways!

And the sad part of the whole thing is that while not everyone has money in their budget for a vacation, most people choose not to use their vacation time because they think they’re being responsible.

“My company needs me.”
“There’s too much work to be done for me to take off.”
“Leaving now would affect my overall performance.”

But these beliefs are often simply not true.

Survey Says: Travel Makes Us Happier

Research continues to show that employees who take time off to recharge are significantly more productive upon their return to work, a fact most managers recognize. According to the report, most managers believe that taking vacation time improves their employees’ mental health (76 percent of respondents) and physical health (67 percent). Similar numbers of managers believe that time off enhances their employees’ personal and social lives. The bottom line: Healthy, happy people are healthy, happy workers, and managers know it.

Those who use all their vacation time are also being more responsible to their country (cue patriotic music). If each employee who currently leaves paid time off on the table were to take just one additional day of earned leave each year, the economy would benefit by $73 billion dollars.

So the next time someone you know says they don’t plan on using up all their vacation time, feel free to give them a lecture on why taking vacations, even one as short as a weekend getaway, is so important to their employers, themselves and their country.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

And if they still insist their workplace can’t survive without them? Well, tell them to send me their days off. I know I can find a use for them.

– written by Dori Saltzman

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 spectacular religious landmarks.

Would you rather…

… tour the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, or …

hagia sophia istanbul



… wander the ancient temples of Angkor, Cambodia?

ta prohm angkor cambodia


No matter your own spiritual leanings, religious buildings such as cathedrals, temples and mosques are some of the world’s most spectacular buildings. As we write in our Istanbul travel guide, the Hagia Sophia was “once a church, then a mosque, [and] was made into a museum in 1935 after the secular Turkish Republic was founded.” Angkor, Cambodia, is home to a number of Hindu and Buddhist Temples dating back to the Khmer Empire (9th – 15th centuries).

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Here’s something fun to kick off your weekend. It’s a travel-themed picture puzzle. You just have to tie the photos together to make words. For example, a photo of an eye, combined with a photo of a full glass of water would be eye + full = Eiffel. Get it? (For another example, check out last week’s puzzle.)

This week’s puzzle is two words and represents a bucket list destination for many travelers.

Once you think you know the answer, post it below. You have until Monday, February 24, 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 travel mug. 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 Janette Lawler, who correctly guessed that the pictogram spelled “Galapagos Islands.” Janette has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.


– written and created by Sarah Schlichter

cuba cruiseOn my second night onboard the Canada-based Cuba Cruise, the first cruise line to offer sailings around the island, Captain Stathis Goumas added a caveat to his welcome speech that resonated with all of us onboard:

“If you want to experience a typical Caribbean cruise, then you have come on the wrong ship. Is that what you’d like?” he asked us. A chorus of “No!”

He went on: “Don’t expect cruise ship tourism that you might have experienced in other parts of the Caribbean: We’re leaving 2014, and stepping back to the 1950s.”

And so it has proved, just a few days in to my seven-night trip. The town of Antilla has nothing at the port, one tin shack which acts as the passport office, a disused gangway and the remains of another one, storks sitting on the exposed posts.

As we arrive from our tender, we’re met by a band of local musicians playing traditional Cuban music (“Guantanamera” is the crowd pleaser, but other tunes also make an appearance, including ones by Compay Segundo of Buena Vista Social Club fame, who was from this area).

Read Cuba Trip Reviews

We’re bundled into buses from Cubanacan — the state tourist organization — and driven off to our various excursions. In an hour and a half we pass maybe five cars, a truck, a school bus and a tourist bus or two. The primary means of transport is horse-drawn cart or donkey.

And yet: front porches are immaculate. There is no sign of rubbish anywhere. Kids are smartly dressed in school uniform. The villages we drive through seem lively; people wave as we drive by.

It’s a landscape of sugarcane, much like Jamaica, and that’s the primary source of income around these parts. We learn that up until the mid-90s the sugarcane was transported around the island by steam train. It’s a far cry from Havana, that’s for sure.

Cuba Cruise, which leases Louis Cristal ship from Louis Cruises, is the very first cruise line to offer such a service in this mysterious country. It’s such a significant development for Cuba’s tourism that Fidel Castro’s son was invited onboard for dinner as guest of honor on our first evening, before we departed Havana.

I’ve learned that Cuba Cruise tried something similar five years ago, but too much red tape prevented it from happening. Launching an operation like this is always going to have its challenges. The biggest is perhaps the most obvious: you can’t source the biggest cruise market in the world, and the one on your doorstep: the United States.

Instead Cuba Cruise has concentrated on Canada, Europe and the Far East, and onboard we have mainly Canadians, Koreans, Chinese and then a smattering of Europeans — Brits, French, Germans, Greeks and Italians. There is also a U.S. educational group and two U.S. citizens, who got on in Jamaica’s Montego Bay and wish to remain nameless.

So far, everyone we’ve met on our tours is welcoming. There’s no hint of the weariness that you notice in other Caribbean destinations: instead there’s a charm, and a real sense of gratefulness that we have chosen to visit here.

Why You Should Visit Cuba Now

The areas that we go to are not traditional Cuba, and could leave you with a poor impression if you were on a more common all-inclusive land vacation. Take Guardalavaca Beach, which has an all-inclusive resort and a slightly tacky flea market. This area was first developed for tourism back in the 1960s, when Cuba welcomed Russians from the former Soviet Union, and many Soviet-era apartment blocks and the two main hotels were built to cater for the influx.

cuba farmer car cigarLuckily Cuba Cruise has made some adjustments to get us beyond the obvious. Our final stop is the one I will remember: a traditional farm, where we stroll through the farmer’s banana plantation, suck on sugarcane pulled from the ground and eat a sweet banana, before enjoying a local snack and a strong coffee.

The farmer keeps a Plymouth car from 1948 in his garage and assures us that he still drives it every day from his house to the market and back. To prove the point he starts up the engine and poses beside it, chomping a fat cigar.

It’s quite overwhelming. But if you’re intrigued, hurry up and go; it’s changing as you read this.

– written by Adam Coulter

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!

svartifoss waterfall icelandIn this month’s featured review, reader Shannon Colman names five places any visitor to Iceland should check out — as well as one to skip. On her must-see list is a waterfall in Skaftafell National Park: “The most spectacular thing about Svartifoss is the structure of the basalt columns behind the water — their rigidness evokes a sense of formality and order,” wrote Shannon. “I described them as resembling the pipes on an organ at a funeral, sitting in position, ready to release their morbid tones.”

Read the rest of Shannon’s review here: 5 Must-Dos in Iceland. Shannon has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

cartoon man in pillory I’m fed up. Sick of it. And I haven’t even experienced the worst of it. But I’ve had enough of self-important air travelers believing they’re above the rules and then becoming incensed and unruly when a flight attendant, or worse yet, another passenger, points out they are in the wrong.

In the latest incident of “unruly” airplane behavior, an American Airlines flight actually had to make an unscheduled stop to boot a guy off the plane. While the airline did not give specific details about the man’s behavior, Fox News reports he refused to listen to the crew’s instructions and had to be handed over to authorities in Canada.

Flying is frustrating enough without our fellow passengers making things worse for us. And yet, such incidents are becoming more commonplace. While Alec Baldwin famously refused to turn off a game of Words with Friends on his cell phone, he’s far from alone in such disruptive behavior. More recently, the niece of fashion designer Ralph Lauren was kicked off a plane after she had too much to drink and began threatening and verbally abusing the crew.

The Real Reason Fliers Hate the Airlines

According to CBS News, the reports of passenger misconduct skyrocketed from 500 in 2007 to more than 6,000 in 2011 on international flights. And while I don’t hold the airlines completely blameless for the frustrations that often drive these angry passengers to lash out, I do believe it’s time to do something about such behavior.

In March 2014, CBS reports, the International Air Transport Association will propose changes to global laws against unruly passengers to bring them more in line with the stricter laws that apply to domestic flights. (In the U.S., passengers are subject to fines and even jail time for acting out in the air.)

In the meantime, I believe it’s time to bring back the pillory as a form of punishment. I propose every plane be outfitted with an onboard pillory. Passengers who carry on too much luggage, refuse to turn off their cell phones, yell at flight attendants or in any other way disrupt the travel of the majority of people on the plane should be placed in the pillory and forced to stand in front of everyone until it’s time for the plane to land.

But, because I’m a nice person and don’t want anyone to suffer unnecessarily, unruly passengers should have the option of getting out of the pillory by instead personally apologizing to everyone else on the plane for their bad behavior.

The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room

Have you been on a plane disrupted by an angry passenger? How would you like to see unruly passengers punished?

– written by Dori Saltzman