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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Catch up on some of the best travel reading of the week.

standing stones orkney


A Long Love Affair with the Scottish Isles, in Pictures
This post from National Geographic’s Proof photography blog captures the misty landscapes and unique culture of the Scottish Isles, including St. Kilda, Lewis and the Orkneys. (Our favorite? The shot of inquisitive Atlantic puffins.)

Thank You for Flying Trash Airlines
Need a laugh? Read this quick New Yorker piece, which is a series of text-message updates about a flight aboard an imaginary budget airline. Example: “Be advised that there are no seat assignments on $uper Air flights. To keep tickets cheap, we replaced all of the chairs with subway poles. Stand anywhere you like!”

Advice for Women on the Road
Mary Beth Bond, founder of Gutsy Traveler.com (a site for adventurous women travelers), shares her wisdom from decades of travel in this New York Times interview. “Don’t let fear keep you at home, but it is more important now than ever to do your homework,” Bond says. “There is never a perfect time. So don’t wait, go now.”

Around the World by Budget Airline
What’s it like to fly all the way around the world on nothing but low-cost carriers? This Telegraph writer found out, testing out 10 different airlines including JetBlue, EasyJet, Ryanair and AirAsia. He discovered that despite the low prices, not all LCCs are created equal.

How Hiking Changes Our Brains — and Makes Us Better Travelers
Conde Nast Traveler rounds up several recent studies that show the beneficial effects of hiking, including minimizing negative thoughts and improving memory. So go ahead — book that trip to a national park. Your brain will thank you.

5 Travel Tips for People with Anxiety
For those who struggle with anxiety in day-to-day life, the uncertainties of travel can be particularly stressful. Bustle offers five tips that can help, including writing yourself a letter to read when things get difficult and keeping some money aside for emergencies.

Fed Up with Uncomfortable Air Travel? Blame Yourself
This essay in the Boston Globe argues that we shouldn’t expect the government to protect us from shrinking airline seats and sneaky ancillary fees because travelers have more control over conditions in the skies than we think. Instead of always booking the lowest possible fare, we should vote with our wallets and travel with the airlines that offer the best in-flight experience.

Travel to Iran: Is It the Next Cuba?
Travel Pulse investigates the rising popularity of Iran as a travel destination, with tour operators expanding their offerings and more Western hotels opening across the country — despite continued warnings by the U.S. State Department that the country isn’t safe.

We love this short video shot in Venice, which beautifully captures the city’s quiet corners.


Photos: 10 Best Scotland Experiences
16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

— written by Sarah Schlichter

For the many travelers who can’t sleep on planes but also can’t afford an upgrade to the front of the plane, a new economy-class bed/seat design could revolutionize the way they travel. Italy-based seat manufacturer Geven debuted its Piuma Sofa — a concept that would turn economy-class seats into a lie-flat bed — at the Aircraft Interiors Expo last week, reports Flightglobal.

The “sofa” effect is created by detaching the headrest from the top of the seat and affixing it to the front of the seat cushion. When all three or four seats in a row are given the same treatment, the result is a bed that stretches across the seats, wide enough for up to two adults. Check out the video below to see how it works:


Geven envisions the concept as a way for airlines to make extra money. Much as passengers can pay a fee at check-in to upgrade themselves to a premium economy seat with extra legroom, they could also pay $200 or so to move to an empty row fitted with the Piuma Sofa. The airline wins by monetizing unsold seats, and the flier wins by getting a good night’s sleep on an overnight flight.

This isn’t a brand-new concept. It’s inspired by Air New Zealand’s Skycouch, a spokesperson told Flightglobal, but it’s a less bulky option since there’s no need to store any part of the bed under the seat. Other airlines that already offer similar lie-flat seats in economy include China Airlines and Kazakhstan’s Air Astana, according to the Daily Mail.

South African Airways will be the first airline to debut the Piuma Sofa; Air Asia X has signed a letter of intent.

How to Sleep Better on Planes
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Would you pay an extra $200 to upgrade to the Piuma Sofa?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

traveler in wheelchair waiting for a trainCatch up on what’s new and nifty with our weekly travel roundup.

Accomable: Could This Airbnb-Style Service Revolutionize Disability Travel?
CNN reports on a new website called Accomable, which helps disabled travelers find accessible lodging in destinations around the world. It was launched by two passionate travelers with disabilities, who wanted to make exploring the world easier for others with similar challenges.

Airline Complaints Spike Even as Service Improves
By many measures, the airlines are actually getting better these days (hard as it may be to believe). USA Today reports that more flights are arriving on time, with fewer lost bags and fewer passengers being bumped from full flights. Despite these improvements, however, passenger grievances are on the rise, particularly complaints from people with disabilities.

In Pictures: An Introduction to Guinea Bissau
The West African nation of Guinea Bissau isn’t on many travelers’ radar — but this photo essay from Rough Guides just might intrigue you enough to start planning a visit.

JetBlue Asks Flyers to ‘Reach Across the Aisle’ in Election-Year Stunt
As the 2016 U.S. presidential election gets increasingly contentious, JetBlue is attempting to bring us all together in the spirit of travel. Adweek highlights a recent publicity stunt, er, video, in which the airline gives away free tickets to an entire plane full of people, as long as they can make a unanimous choice about where to go. (Their eventual pick? Costa Rica.)

Comparing Airbnb and Hotel Rates Around the Globe
In case you’ve ever wondered whether booking a vacation rental would save you money over a hotel, the answer is yes — at least in some of the cities where Busbud compared rates. The site found that Airbnb could save you the most in London, where the average rental is more than $108 cheaper than the average hotel. At the other end of the spectrum is Barcelona, where hotels cost $139 less on average.

Why United Airlines Is Retraining All of Its Pilots
Travel + Leisure reports that all 12,000 United pilots will go through a retraining program in which the most senior pilots will serve as mentors for less experienced members of the team.

This week’s featured video captures the frozen wonderland that is Finland in winter, including snow-laden tree branches, bounding sled dogs, and even Santa Claus and a reindeer.


— written by Sarah Schlichter

meroe pyramids sudanWhat travel news have you missed this week? Catch up with our list of the week’s best stories.

The Pyramids Few Tourists Have Ever Seen
Did you know that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt? This photo essay from BBC Travel offers a fascinating glimpse at these ancient ruins, which receive only about 10 visitors a day.

A 16-Hour Dreamliner Flight with No Jet Lag? Believe It!
United is launching a new 16-hour route from San Francisco to Singapore aboard an aircraft that could revolutionize the way we feel after a long flight, reports Conde Nast Traveler. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner has more humidity than most planes and makes travelers feel like they’re flying at a slightly lower altitude than they would on a standard flight — both of which will help travelers feel less tired and dried-out when they touch down. It should all add up to less jet lag; here’s hoping!

Why 2016 Will Be a Terrible Year for Earning Frequent Flier Miles
Bad news for anyone who loves using their miles for free flights — later this year American will join Delta and United in awarding miles based on the fare you pay rather than the miles you fly, reports Skift. That means that most non-elite travelers and fliers who pay the lowest available fare will likely earn fewer miles. To add insult to injury, the price of award tickets is also going up.

Five Myths About Airline Food
USA Today separates fact from fiction when it comes to airline food. Is it true that all airplane meals are frozen and reheated later? Are they designed to make passengers sleepy? Are all the good meals saved for those in the front of the plane? The story answers these questions and more.

London Lost and Found
We loved reading this thoughtful essay from the New York Times on what it’s like to come back as a tourist to a place you once lived. The author vividly captures that complicated mix of familiarity and strangeness in a city you used to know well.

EasyJet Unveils Plan for “Hybrid” Planes Using Hydrogen Fuel Cells
CNN reports that easyJet (a European low-cost carrier) is trying out a new technology that could save 50,000 tons of fuel each year and reduce its airplanes’ carbon emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells could essentially turn the carrier’s planes into hybrid aircraft, allowing them to take off and land without using any fuel. It sounds promising — but even if it works, the technology is likely at least five years away.

Get your tissues ready for this week’s featured travel video, a heartwarming offering from British Airways.


4 Travel Videos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter

hong kongRead up on the latest from around the travel world with our weekly roundup.

10 Places It’s Cheaper to Fly to in 2016
If you’re dreaming of a trip to Hong Kong this year, you’re in luck — that city tops Kayak’s list of the top travel destinations for airfare savings in 2016, reports Time. It’s 26 percent cheaper to fly there this year than it was last year. Also on the list: Chicago, Beijing, Bangkok and Athens, among others.

The “Boring” Cities Worth a Second Look
Eric Weiner at BBC Travel argues that the cities we often think of as “boring” — such as Geneva, Switzerland and Cleveland, Ohio — actually have a lot to recommend them. You go in with no expectations, so you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised. And boring places have their own charm that flashier places don’t: “When you relinquish the spectacular, you are rewarded with the quieter joy of the ordinary,” writes Weiner.

No Vacation Nation: 41% of Americans Didn’t Take a Day off in 2015
Well, this is depressing. Nearly 41 percent of U.S. respondents to a recent poll went all of 2015 without taking a single vacation day, reports Skift, and another 17 percent took fewer than five days off. Clearly, more Americans need to read that survey that says travel makes us happier.

Travel Broadens the Mind, But Can It Alter the Brain?
The Guardian looks at the benefits of studying or living abroad, which include being more creative, open-minded, independent and emotionally stable. The article also notes that coping with the challenges of travel keeps our minds sharp. (We always knew travelers were smarter…)

The Loophole That Could Save You Money on the Cost of a Flight
The U.K.’s Daily Mail has unearthed an interesting tip for saving money on airfare. If you’re planning to take internal flights within a foreign country, you’ll sometimes pay less if you purchase those flights while you’re in that country — or if you pretend to be from that country when you book.

Department of Transportation: Pilots Are Forgetting How to Fly Manually
Nervous fliers should probably give this article a miss. Popular Mechanics reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation is concerned that an over-reliance on automation has made modern-day pilots less proficient in manual flying — and more likely to make errors in situations that demand it.

Lufthansa Will Change How You Check Bags in 2016
For once, some good airline news! Conde Nast Traveler reports that Lufthansa will be introducing digital tags for checked bags this year, which will allow the airline to track the location of your suitcase and keep you notified via an app. In case of delays, you can tell the app where you want your bag delivered once it arrives.

Big Changes Coming for American’s Reward Program
Aaaaannd now we’re back to lousy airline news. The Dallas Morning News alerts AAdvantage members about coming changes to American Airlines’ rewards program, which include more limited dates for booking off-peak tickets, more miles required to book trips in some markets, and a new way of earning miles based on price paid instead of miles traveled.

For your visual eye candy of the week, we travel to Ireland with this dreamy, cinematic video:


Photos: 12 Best Ireland Experiences
10 Things Not to Do When Checking a Bag

— written by Sarah Schlichter

After taking a few weeks off for the holidays, we’re back with another round-up of all the travel news you need to know.

uber steering wheelUber Is Thinking of Getting into the Travel Business
Uber has already revolutionized the way many of us travel, and the company isn’t done yet, judging by a recent patent. Business Insider explains how a new feature called “Uber Travel” would allow the company to find you flights and accommodations, as well as recommend the best time to call an Uber based on when you’re scheduled to land at an airport.

Hilton Wants You to Pay $50 for What?
As if we needed more fees in our life! Time reports that Hilton is testing out a new program that charges a $50 fee for any cancellation, even if it’s far in advance of your stay. (Wait till the day of arrival and you’ll pay for a full night.) The charge is designed to discourage travelers from using websites and apps that hunt for price drops and rebook them at a lower rate.

Hidden Hotel Fees

Zika: Coming to America Through Mosquitoes, Travel and Sex
In other bad news, there’s a new virus spreading around the world, according to Forbes. Known as zika, the illness is related to yellow fever and dengue, and was first discovered in Uganda. These days it’s heading northward from Brazil, transmitted mainly via mosquitoes. (Sexual transmission is suspected but not proven.) The best prevention method is to use mosquito nets and bug spray when traveling in affected areas.

The TSA May Now Deny You the Right to a Pat-Down
Those of us who feel uncomfortable with the TSA’s full-body scanners have always had the option of choosing a pat-down by a security officer instead — until now. The Department of Homeland Security released a statement last month giving the TSA the right to make a full-body scan mandatory “as warranted by security considerations,” reports Frommer’s.

Who Are the World’s Safest Airlines for 2016?
Nervous fliers won’t want to miss this annual list from AirlineRatings.com, which highlights the 20 safest airlines in the world. And the winner is … Australia-based Qantas, which tops the charts for the third year in a row. Several U.S. airlines made the grade, including American, Alaska, Hawaiian and United.

These 38 Airlines Have the Lowest Airline Safety Ratings
And here’s the counterpoint: the worst-rated carriers on AirlineRatings.com, as rounded up by Travel + Leisure. The good news is that you’ve probably never heard of any of these airlines, so you’re not too likely to fly them. (TransNusa? Daallo Airlines? Anyone?!)

Fear of Flying

We wrap up this week’s edition with a short film from western Mongolia, which captures the day-to-day life of the nomadic Kazakh people, including the fascinating way they train eagles to hunt for game.


— 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

cabin crew flight attendant pilot planeThere are several areas on planes where access is restricted to crew only. The cockpit is one; baggage storage areas are another. But many passengers — even frequent fliers — don’t realize there are also bunk areas where cabin crew sleep during long-haul flights.

Thanks to an article from Business Insider, we’ve gotten a small glimpse of what these areas look like (although we’re pretty sure they’re smaller than they appear and don’t lend themselves to having, as one commenter put it, “a pre-teen slumber party”).

What’s neat about them is how they’re accessed. Often reached via a secret door near the cockpit and a tiny set of winding stairs, most of these areas can sleep anywhere from six to 10 crewmembers via bunks or side-by-side mattresses divided by curtains or other partitions. Some airlines also offer pajamas.

Even cooler: On certain plane models, these areas have emergency exits that feed into the main passenger cabins through what appear to be normal overhead bins.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Did you know these areas existed? What are some of your favorite travel secrets? Be sure to share in the comments below.

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

baggage claim airportAirlines often have us jumping through hoops — okay, metal detectors — before boarding their planes. You’ve seen fellow fliers looking panicked (read: me) as they hastily unpack luggage contents into other bags to redistribute weight, or shove carry-on bags into the rigid metal sizers and pray the wheels and handle jutting out won’t raise any eyebrows. However, a few air carriers seem to have another stipulation in mind before letting you on their next flight: stepping on the scale yourself.

An article in USA Today reports that Uzbekistan Airways has unfolded a plan to weigh passengers along with their bags as a safety measure. While the airline promises this information will not be made public, it has not specified whether this individual weight designation will determine whether you get on the plane or not. In 2012 Samoa Air, another small airline, took the precaution one step further and began charging passengers by weight. Surprisingly, the regulation has held up three years later with the airline’s site even boasting the slogan, “A kilo is a kilo is a kilo!”

Could such a policy be enacted here in the U.S.? Doubtful, according to a New York Times article from 2013: “While no major airline would consider the folly of actually weighing passengers, passenger weight is factored into overall calculations for any flight on any airplane, partly based in the United States on Federal Aviation Administration average weight estimates that have been revised upward in recent years as waistlines have grown.”

Do You Know Your Passenger Rights?

While it’s true that planes adhere to strict weight regulations, the majority of major carriers seem to get around this issue without getting personal (well, any more personal than a body scan, a possible pat-down and a look at all of your identification). On Southwest, passengers who cannot fit comfortably into one seat (and by comfortably, the airline means travelers who don’t fit at all) must purchase a second seat. The same holds true for American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and United.

If there was a promise that your trip would not be changed regardless of the outcome, would you feel comfortable stepping on a scale before your next flight? Where do you draw the line for safety in the sky?

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

baggage claim airportLast month, the Los Angeles Times came out with a surprising report: According to academic studies, airline baggage fees have actually improved flier satisfaction.

Per the article, these oft-complained-about fees have “led to fewer lost-bag reports, fewer delayed flights and a drop in bag-related passenger complaints.”

While it’s not the news most of us want to hear — we’ll never get rid of these fees now! — it makes logical sense in some ways. The surcharges make passengers less likely to check bags, which means there are fewer bags for the airline to lose. Flight delays are also less likely since there aren’t as many suitcases for baggage handlers to load onto the plane.

But when we shared the L.A. Times report with our followers on Facebook, they didn’t seem too inclined to agree with the researchers’ conclusion that baggage fees have actually made fliers’ lives better.

“People try to drag much more in carry-on bags onto a plane, which causes issues when there is not enough room,” wrote Tom Vertrees. “Makes disembarkation much longer and more stress on travelers.”

Staxy Morrison concurred: “It adds to more people having to check baggage at the gate and more confusion when boarding!”

7 Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

Colleen R Costello pointed out that the airlines have an ulterior motive in the way they charge baggage fees: “From what I read it’s only been a way for them to divert income from one category to another! Seems baggage fees aren’t taxed or treated the same way as fare revenue is! Sneaky.” (Colleen is right: Airlines must pay a 7.5 excise tax on the base airfares that they charge, but this tax is not applicable to ancillary charges such as baggage fees.)

But our favorite response might just be the one from Mickey Morgan: “What bag fees? I fly Southwest.”

Quiz: How Well Do You Know the Airlines?

What’s your take? Do you think that baggage fees have been a net positive for fliers overall?

— written by Sarah Schlichter