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hiking trail skagway alaska forestAlaska is … green? Are you kidding me?

Yes, it’s true. Recently I took my first cruise to Alaska, only to discover that much of it is green, not covered in ice and snow. I was flabbergasted.

Maybe others know pretty much what to expect when arriving at their destination, but man, was I taken back. I had expected glorious white topography. Not a rain forest.

“You idiot,” some might say. “It’s summer.”

Sigh. Now I know.

It would be one thing if this was the first time this had happened to me. Sadly, my list below shows eight times I was caught off guard when arriving in a new place. Some surprises were bonuses; others were just plain weird. One day I’ll learn about this thing called the Internet and do more research.

Or maybe that surprised feeling is just the reason I love to travel!

8 Travel Surprises
1. Dominican Republic: I expected paradise. I found a handful of near-death experiences. (Santo Domingo is a very frightening place to be lost. See Drama in the DR: Lessons from a Series of Unfortunate Events for more on this topic.)

2. Chicago: I expected a city, not a beach. Bonus!

3. New York: I expected world-class shopping and dining. I smelled like kabobs and roasted nuts by the time I found either of these things.

4. Aruba: I expected tropical. I found a desert — except for the lawn-watering resorts.

5. Seattle: I expected Pearl Jam. I found sushi.

6. New Orleans: I don’t know what I expected, but not that smell. Bourbon Street at night puts the smelliest college parties to shame.

7. Boston: I expected chowdah. I found food trucks! (Don’t miss the SoWa food trucks in the South End throughout the non-frigid months.)

8. Vancouver: I expected outdoorsy attractions. I found crazy hockey fans.

Poll: What’s the Most Delightful Travel Surprise?

As I came up with this list, I started to wonder how many other travelers have gone somewhere only to find out their expectations came from the ether. How many knew that the star-studded sidewalk in Hollywood would be lined with shady characters selling some really weird swag? How many expected to be able to buy a T-shirt while checking out the Sphinx? Share your story of mistaken expectations in the comments!

– written by Matt Leonard

suitcase boots Last Thursday I returned from my first trip to Alaska. Everything from the views to the food was fantastic. But part of what made my trip so enjoyable was that I was ready for just about anything, because I had read up on what I needed and had brought three specific must-pack items.

Layers: Having read many articles on how to prepare, I still struggled to find outfits that were suitable for both warm and cold weather without grossly overpacking. What I finally settled on were two pairs of jeans, several short- and long-sleeved shirts, a sweatshirt, a light jacket and a fleece jacket, with a pair of gloves and a headband to keep my ears warm. I kept an umbrella and poncho handy, too. “They” aren’t kidding when they say the weather can change at the drop of a hat. In Juneau, it was rainy and chilly, but not cold. In Skagway, it was cloudy and in the 40’s. In Ketchikan (which gets 13 feet of rain per year), it was sunny and in the 70’s.

Interactive Packing List

Proper Footwear: After my clothes, I tossed plenty of socks and three pairs of sturdy shoes into my suitcase, factoring in one pair for wet weather (waterproofed hiking boots), one pair for cold weather (sheepskin boots) and one pair for regular weather (sneakers or tennis shoes). Boy, were my feet happy.

How to Pack for a Galapagos Cruise

The Best Camera You Can Beg, Borrow or Buy: Sure, certain things in Alaska are overrated. (You can see similar mountains in several other places.) But you’ll want to snap some once-in-a-lifetime shots of what’s not so common elsewhere: grizzlies, dog-sled teams, Tlingit totems and, of course, glaciers, just to name a few. Most standard smartphones these days come with cameras that will do the trick just fine (and often better than any mainstream digital camera), so if you don’t own one, look into upgrading or borrowing one from a friend. You won’t regret it.

Best Local Spots to See Wildlife

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

glacier bay alaskaEach 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!

In this month’s featured review, reader olddocw writes about a recent adventure in Alaska. “The wildlife were the real stars of the show. Many sightings of humpback whales, harbor seals on the ice floes, Steller sea lions basking on the rocks, taking in the rare sunny day,” olddocw tells us. “Saw some Dall sheep up on the hillside of some of the larger islands. A group of dolphins enjoyed racing in front of the boat for about 20 minutes. Overall a wonderful experience which I would highly recommend.”

Read the rest of olddocw’s review here: DIY Alaska Adventure. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering at work on the day before Christmas? Rather be someplace else in the world? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot is of folks exploring a glacier in Patagonian Chile. But glacier hiking can be done in New Zealand, Alaska, Norway, Greenland and many other places, giving you endless travel options.

glacier hiking patagonia chile



Walking Tours and Trips

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

– written by Dori Saltzman

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot of the aurora borealis was snapped in Alaska.

northern lights aurora borealis alaska tent camping



Planning a Trip to Alaska

Do you have an inspirational photo you want to share with our readers? E-mail it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Winter Vacations Without the Skis

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Today, during my usual lunchtime sanity break, I peeled myself from my desk and ventured outside in search of food. The wall of hot air that greeted me was stifling. To the chagrin of several women in the knitting store across the way, I immediately stripped down to my underwear. Okay, not really — but I did seriously consider it as I watched a small child attempting to fry an egg in the parking lot.

The latest heat wave here in the Northeastern U.S. has brought temperatures in the 90’s for the past several weeks, and it’s constantly got me wishing I were anywhere but here — anywhere that’s cooler than here, that is.

Take a peek below for four places and activities that I’ve been dreaming about almost daily of late. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel cooler just looking at them.

Visiting Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

glacier bay national park



Swimming at Dunn’s River Falls, Ocho Rios, Jamaica

dunns river falls jamaica



Skiing in Queenstown, New Zealand

queenstown skiing



Touring the (air-conditioned!) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

metropolitan museum of art new york



Where would you like to cool off right about now?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

“‘Tradition’ is a synonym for ‘rut,'” tweeted @wandering_j in response to a call out for unique summer travel traditions. We beg to differ — especially if your tradition is to visit a different island park each summer, or to charter a boat and explore places unknown. Not that there’s anything wrong with the yearly beach pilgrimage to Wildwood for family fun, arcades and deep-fried Oreos, but we’re going unique here. Check out our five, then share your own inspired ideas for summer travel traditions.

1. Trace the Beer and Food Festivals
For the connoisseur or boozehound, Beerfestivals.org’s July calendar lists dozens of fests throughout the U.S. and beyond. I think this year, I’ll start on July 23 at the Philly Zoo’s Summer Ale Festival. Attendees can drink River Horse’s Hop Hazard (or brews from a list of other outfits) and eat local cuisine while supporting the zoo’s mission to “bring about the x-tink-shun of extinction.” Or brave the summer heat for New Orleans’s Tales of the Cocktail festival, which offers cooking demos and cocktail tastings at the end of July. Finally, we had to mention @TravelSpinner’s suggestion: Head to Suffolk, England for “Dwile Flonking,” which Wikipedia says “involves two teams, each taking a turn to dance around the other while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team.” Now how could you miss that?

beer festival



2. Escape to an Island State Park
Florida‘s Bahia Honda Key comprises a state park with a natural beach (you’ll quickly get used to the strong seaweed smell), fishing and snorkeling, kayaking, rare plant spotting, and hiking. Head up to the old Bahia Honda Bridge, part of the iconic Overseas Highway, for a view of the island and its surroundings. You can rent cabins or rough it at a campsite (a store and shower facilities are available on the island). Across the country, trekkers can camp at California‘s Channel Islands, a chain of uninhabited islands with a unique ecosystem. The islands are said to resemble California as it was B.S. (before smog). Activities for campers (back country and official campsites) include surfing, hiking, and seal and sea lion viewing.

bahia honda state park florida keys



3. Explore a Destination by Chartered Boat
Visiting a place by boat is often the best — and sometimes only — way to go. If you can pull together 3 – 20 like-minded friends (the more you gather, the more you can divide the costs), you can charter a boat for a cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage, which is made up of islands unlinked by road. There are various choices, from two- or three-nighters to a week or more; all come with cook and captain. Meals and snacks are included in the costs, and often feature “catch of the day”-type fare, as well as crab and shrimp bakes. Excursions may include beach and rain forest hiking, fishing, kayaking (most charters are equipped with kayaks and smaller skiffs), wetsuit diving, whale watching, and visits to hot springs and waterfalls — all there to be enjoyed whenever the opportunity presents itself. For more tips, see Planning a Trip to Alaska.

alaska inside passage boat sunset



4. Relive History
Some of the most important (and bloodiest) battles of Civil War occurred during the summer months. @PolPrairieMama mentioned that she heads to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and Antietam (in Sharpsburg, Maryland), where 23,000 soldiers were killed in 12 hours, for summer reenactments. The big annual Gettysburg Civil War Battle Reenactment runs from July 1 to 3 and features live mortar fire demos and battles — but there are enough battlefields and reenactments to fill a lifetime of summers. And don’t forget: This year is the start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

gettysburg battlefield cannon civil war



5. Become a Home Team Groupie
Leap-frogging on an annual manly bonding trip taken by IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter’s father and brother, we’re hitting the road with an arbitrarily chosen sports squadron. A quick glance at the Philadelphia Phillies’ schedule reveals a West Coast swing from August 1 – 10, during which the team plays the Colorado Rockies for three, the San Francisco Giants for four and the Los Angeles Dodgers for three. Three vastly different cities, climates, ballparks, landscapes. Next year we’ll pick a different team on a different swing. Anything but a rut.

san francisco giants baseball ballpark



Get more summer vacation ideas!

– written by Dan Askin

 Ketchikan, Alaska Every Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Many travelers would argue that cruising is the best way to explore Alaska. Cruisers can tour scenic straits by ship, sail past rugged forests and gaze at glaciers from the comfort of their own private balconies. But there’s little debate on how expensive Alaska cruises can be, especially during summer months, which is why we’re excited about Oceania’s just-announced 2011 Alaska sale.

Oceania’s Regatta will start sailing Alaskan waters this May. To celebrate its new itineraries, the luxury cruise line is offering two-for-one fares, free airfare from select cities, $1,000 bonus savings per stateroom and an onboard credit of $1,000 per stateroom on all Alaska sailings. In addition, third and fourth passengers cruise free, and solo cruisers can take advantage of reduced single supplements on select sailings.

The Catch: Thousand-dollar savings seem titanic, but keep in mind that Oceania’s base fares aren’t cheap — after all, it’s a luxury cruise line. Alaska cruises start $3,299 per person based on double occupancy before any discounts are added.

The Competition: Regent Seven Seas Cruises is also running a promotion that features two-for-one cruise fares and bonus savings. The sale includes several Alaska sailings in addition to various discounted Europe, Panama Canal, Australia and Caribbean cruises.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Cruise Deals. For more information on traveling to Alaska, read Planning a Trip to Alaska.

– written by Caroline Costello