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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 “Maiden of the Rock” is accessed via a short ferry ride.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, December 7, 2015, 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 Amy, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Xunantunich in Belize. Amy 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

There’s a clever new bag in town for travelers who want to stay organized on their next trip. It’s called Oregami, and it involves an innovative system of interior compartments that are part shelf, part packing cube. The three zipped-together compartments fold neatly into and out of the suitcase, and can be separated if you want to stow them in drawers or keep them in different parts of a hotel room. Check out the video below to see the design in action:


The Oregami Touring 100 suitcase measures 30 inches high, 15 inches wide and 12 inches deep, and retails for $399.97 on the Oregami website. It’s currently only available in black, but a “fossil”-colored (light brown) model is coming soon, with a carry-on size to follow.

Sarah Schlichter, senior editor of IndependentTraveler.com, and Lissa Poirot, editor-in-chief of sister site Family Vacation Critic, teamed up to test the bag in a variety of settings. Lissa took the suitcase on a cruise with her son, while Sarah and her fiance shared the bag over a weekend car trip. Here’s what they loved — and what they weren’t so fond of:

The Good
It’s an organized person’s dream: What better tool to provide a Type A, organized personality than a bag with different compartments, each with zippered covers? If you love packing cubes, you’ll appreciate this bag.

It’s easy to unpack: Lissa’s favorite thing about the suitcase was being able to unzip each tray and slip them into the drawers on her cruise ship. She had packed her son’s clothes in one tray, her own in another and bathroom items in the third, so everything had a place.

It’s customizable: If you only need one or two of the trays, it’s easy to unzip them from each other and leave behind the ones you don’t need.

It’s made of high-quality materials: The bag feels sturdy, and we liked that the wheels are a standard size for in-line skates, making them easy to replace if necessary.

oregami suitcase


The Bad
It’s heavy: The bag weighs 14 pounds when it’s empty — more than a quarter of your weight allowance for checked bags on most airlines. If you tend to be a heavy packer, you might struggle to avoid overweight fees.

It’s not the most efficient use of space: Travelers who are more interested in maximizing every square inch of a suitcase than in staying organized will find it frustrating to try to work everything into or around bulky rectangular compartments. (This is the same reason ultra-light traveler Sarah is not a fan of packing cubes.)

It’s not a grab-and-go bag: If you need to access an item that you didn’t put in the top tray, you’ll have to lay out the suitcase, then unzip and undo the compartments until you reach the one where your item is stored. (With an ordinary suitcase, it’s easier to simply unzip and root around.)

It’s not easy to maneuver in crowded spaces: The suitcase rolls smoothly, but its short handle keeps the bag very close, making it difficult to turn quickly when moving through crowded airports. It doesn’t pivot or turn and is best-suited for easy, direct walks.

Want to give this bag a try? We’re giving away our gently used black Oregami Touring 100 suitcase! Just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, December 21, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the suitcase. This giveaway is open only to residents of the United States. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner of the suitcase is Mary Fortin. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter and Lissa Poirot

eiffel tower selfie parisSeveral weeks have passed since Leigh Smythe Merino hastily departed Paris following the terrorist attacks last month. The Alexandria, Virginia, resident had arrived for her first-ever visit to the French capital the morning of the mass assaults on November 13.

“I felt so many emotions at once,” Merino, 42, said in an interview this week. “I was so profoundly sad about the people who had died. I was scared for the people of Paris. I was anxious. I was conflicted about staying or going.”

She was staying at a friend’s apartment a short walk from the cafe where 19 people were killed and nine were injured. After several texts and a few phone calls with her husband back home in the States, Merino decided to leave Paris the next morning.

Now that some time has passed, Merino has had a chance to reflect on that day. She never before considered what to do in the event of an emergency departure from a city, but she feels better prepared now.

“I do not want to diminish the horror of the events of that day. But I hope my experience could help other people think on their feet and act quickly,” she said.

If you find yourself in a similar high-risk scenario — one that the U.S State Department has alerting us to in its latest travel warning — Merino offers the following advice:

Contact your airline as soon as possible to rebook your flight. Airlines will be aware of the situation and often will rebook you for free and with no questions asked. Merino was wise to email her husband back in Virginia and have him call United Airlines to schedule a new flight. Given the number of other fliers trying to rebook, Merino would have had a difficult time trying to get through to an agent in France. “My husband got through right away to a U.S.-based agent, and he easily got me on a new flight,” she said. “It took only minutes.”

Keep your wits about you. Merino admitted she wasn’t thinking as clearly as normal. But she took a deep breath and took a moment to prioritize what was most important: making sure her wallet and passport were handy yet secure. To locate her emergency credit card, in case she needed it. To keep her cell phone charged. To make sure her Uber app was working to get a ride to the airport the next morning.

Try to get rest. It was impossible to sleep that night, Merino said. Sirens sounded all night. She and her friend stayed glued to the news. A thousand thoughts kept her awake. “There was no way I would have been able to fall asleep,” she said. “But I expected the next day to be tough and I tried to rest as much as I could.” Same goes for eating well, staying hydrated and otherwise taking good care of yourself.

charles de gaulle airport lineGo to the airport far, far earlier than usual. Merino had an 11:55 a.m. flight. Anticipating large crowds and heightened security, she arrived at the airport four hours before her flight. As it turned out, the airport was packed, and security lines were chaotic and slow-moving. (In fact, her flight departed 90 minutes late because so many passengers were still in security lines.)

Muster the most patience you’ve ever had. The experience at Charles de Gaulle was frustrating to say the least, Merino said. There were few staff controlling extra-large crowds, and only a handful of officers were working that Saturday morning at passport control. Lines became masses, and people became unruly. “I kept reminding myself to keep perspective,” she said. “People were going through far, far worse in Paris. I could handle this.”

Register your trip with your government. In advance of overseas travel, Merino said she’ll now register her trip with the U.S. State Department. Doing so can give you access to information from the local embassy as well as help friends and family at home contact you in an emergency. (U.S. citizens can register themselves here; other countries have similar programs.)

Obtain international cell service. Merino also said she will contact her cell phone service provider to make sure that her phone has temporary international service; she recommends the same for all travelers who can’t currently use her phone abroad as part of their current plans.

Travel Warnings and Advisories
Travel Safety and Health Tips

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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!

st michael's monastery kiev In this month’s winning review, a traveler enjoys an autumn trip to the capital of Ukraine, where she meets babushkas, visits monasteries and learns about recent political developments from a local guide. “Natasha … emotionally recalls the significant events and sacrifices of protesters killed by the crushing force of the riot police,” writes Lesley Williamson. “Hundreds of these young men’s portraits are honored with flowers and candles and for Natasha, such a public tribute to the nation’s heroes is poignant evidence that Ukraine is changing and that a newly independent country is emerging from its Russian legacy, timidly establishing itself with its own unique identity.”

Read the rest of Lesley’s review here: Kiev: golden domes, shimmering spires and bohemian spirits of freedom. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Here’s another edition of our weekly travel news round-up, keeping travelers informed, inspired and entertained.

airplane water sunsetHow to Fly Free Forever: Charge $170 Million on Your AmEx Card
A Chinese billionaire recently charged the purchase of a $170 million painting to his American Express card, racking up enough reward points to fly in first class for free for the rest of his life. USA Today estimates that he could fly in a first-class suite with Singapore Airlines some 3,000 times between Europe and the United States. (Wonder if he’d be interested in donating a few of those points to those of us with smaller credit card limits?!)

The First Debit Card for U.S. Travelers to Cuba Is Now Available
Speaking of spending money, it’s just gotten a little bit easier for American travelers headed to Cuba. Skift reports that a Florida bank is offering a debit card for Americans to use for hotel stays, restaurant meals and other purchases in Cuba. The card will not yet work at the island’s ATMs, though this may change next year.

Clever Tricks That Fix Common Packing Problems
This fun slideshow from Frommer’s offers nine ingenious packing hacks — from hiding extra cash in an empty deodorant tube to using straws to keep your necklaces from tangling — complete with GIFs that show you how to execute each one.

7 Keys to Traveling Without Fear Despite Terrorist Attacks
Wendy Perrin offers wise, practical advice to those feeling understandably jittery about traveling in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali. She explains why terrorism is so frightening but points out just how unlikely each of us is to be caught in this type of scenario as compared to other travel risks (such as car accidents).

Finding VIP Travel Experiences: A Q&A with Wendy Perrin

As a reminder of the world’s beauty, we’ll wrap up this week’s travel round-up with an exquisite travel video from Bhutan, featuring golden Buddhas, fluttering prayer flags and friendly local faces creased with smiles.


— written by Sarah Schlichter

us passport visa pagesYou’ve seen them in the security line in front of you: globetrotters with passports so thick that they have to use thick rubber bands to keep them closed.

Soon, this will be a thing of the past.

Frequent travelers who run out of visa pages in their U.S. passports will no longer be able to order extra pages beginning January 1, the U.S. State Department announced last week. In 2016, if you run out of pages, you will need to order a new passport.

Previously, if you filled your passport with visas and entry and exit stamps, you could order an insert of 24 additional pages. The State Department is eliminating this option “for security reasons and to conform better with international passport standards,” according to a statement.

The standard U.S. passport contains 28 pages, 17 of which are reserved for visa entry and exit stamps. In 2014, the State Department began issuing 52-page passports (with 43 visa stamp pages) for no additional fee. (Renewing a passport through the State Department is currently $110.) Choosing a 52-page passport at the time of application or renewal is now the smartest option for frequent travelers.

The State Department will still issue the 24-page inserts through the end of the year and will still honor them at airports — so now is the time to order one if you need one. The cost is $82.

Routine passport processing via mail currently takes four to five weeks, according to the State Department. Expedited processing through the State Department takes two to three weeks.

10 Things Not to Wear When Traveling Abroad

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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, November 30, 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 Toni Sullivan, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Uruguay. Toni has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

peace for parisHere’s another edition of our favorite travel stories of the week. (If you missed the first edition last week, you can check it out here.)

Fodor’s Stands with Paris
In this moving post, the editor-in-chief of Fodor’s explains why she isn’t planning to cancel her holiday trip to Paris next month, even after the recent terrorist attacks.

No More International Roaming Charges? Here’s How
Conde Nast Traveler offers good news for travelers who like to stay connected: Verizon is now allowing customers to pay between $2 and $10 per day to use their phones abroad the same way they do in the United States, without worrying about expensive roaming charges. (The article also includes suggestions for those who use different cell phone carriers.)

United Airlines Might Be the First Brand to Actually Drop a ‘Hidden’ Flying Fee
Here’s more welcome news on the fee front, this time from Travel + Leisure, which reports that United Airlines recently removed its rebooking fee. Passengers used to have to pay $50 to change their flight due to an unplanned event such as illness. Let’s hope more airlines follow suit.

Transparent Airplane Walls May Be in Air Travel’s Not-So-Distant Future
Fortune reports that Airbus is planning some revolutionary changes to the in-flight experience, including transparent airplane walls that will give new meaning to the phrase “window seat.” (If you’re afraid of heights, you’ll be able to use an opaque hologram to block the view.) Other potential changes: seats that adjust to your body size and themed “zones” where you can play games or interact with other passengers.

Starwood Devotees Greet Marriott Merger With Dread and Anger
Marriott International announced Monday that it will acquire Starwood Hotels & Resorts (which includes Sheraton, W, Le Meriden, Westin and several other chains). In this piece from the New York Times, frequent Starwood guests express their concerns about what will happen to their loyalty points and whether or not they’ll continue to enjoy the personalized service they’re used to after the merger.

Finally, have a laugh at this video of an Irishman on vacation in Las Vegas, who didn’t quite understand which way to point the GoPro camera he borrowed from his son. Instead of capturing the sights around town, he ended up filming his own face all over Sin City. Here’s the footage, spliced together (with a little musical embellishment) by his son Evan:


— written by Sarah Schlichter

What do you do when wanderlust strikes, but you’re not in a position to indulge it? That’s a dilemma I often face this time of year, when work is busy with end-of-the-year deadlines and most of my budget and vacation time are allotted to family-focused holiday travel. The more restricted I am from traveling somewhere exotic, the more I want to go away.

One way I’ve found to cure an untimely travel itch is to watch TED Talks. TED is a nonprofit that aims to share ideas about all sorts of topics in the form of videos of 18 minutes or less. Topics range from business to science to self-help, and quite a few speakers have presented travel-themed talks too. I turn to them to satisfy my wanderlust.

Below are five of my favorite TED Talks to help you indulge your own escapist travel fantasies.

Photographer Chris Burkard is absolutely crazy — and I love it. He travels to the frigid ends of the Earth to take pictures, surf and, as he describes in this 10-minute video, go on a “personal crusade against the mundane.”



Tony Wheeler is the founder of the travel guidebook series Lonely Planet. His 17-minute presentation focuses on the unusual and seemingly dangerous places he likes to travel.



Kitra Cahana is a modern-day and self-proclaimed vagabond. As a child she traveled the world with her parents. When she became an adult, she found she couldn’t stop. She has spent her days documenting the lives of other nomads in the United States, which she discusses in this five-minute video.



Whenever I feel guilty about the amount of money I spend on travel, I watch videos like this one, in which Turkish presenter Gulhan Sen details how travel changes you for the better. Money well spent!



Modern-day explorer Ben Saunders was the youngest person ever to ski solo to the North Pole when he successfully completed his goal in 2004. He did a talk in 2006 about it, but I like the following talk even better — a general, 10-minute presentation on why we should all spend more time outdoors.



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

–written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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:

major seas of the world


Enter your list of countries in the comments below. You have until Monday, November 16, 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 Margot Cushing, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

major seas


— created by Sarah Schlichter