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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

cinque terre italy


Population: 93 million

Currency: Dong

Phrase to Know: Ban co noi tieng Anh khong? (Do you speak English?)

Fun Fact: Next time you add a pinch of pepper to a dish, think of Vietnam; it’s the world’s largest exporter of black pepper.

We Recommend: Have a taste of Vietnam’s imperial cuisine in Hue. Here kings in the 19th century commonly ate meals consisting of up to 300 tiny, exquisitely presented dishes. These days you can sample similar fare at restaurants in Hue, such as steamed rice-flour dumplings with dried shrimp and pork.

11 Best Vietnam Experiences

Have you been to Vietnam? What was your favorite spot?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

tokyo skyline nightThe world’s largest city is also the world’s safest, according to a new report. Tokyo has been declared the winner in the 2015 edition of the Economist’s Safe Cities Index.

Right behind Japan’s capital were two other Asian cities, Singapore and Osaka, with European favorites Stockholm and Amsterdam rounding out the top five. The highest ranked U.S. city was New York at number 10. At the bottom of the barrel was Jakarta, Indonesia, coming in at number 50. Its overall safety score was just 53.71 out of 100 (as compared to Tokyo, which scored 85.63).

On hearing the word “safest,” you might picture a place where you’re unlikely to get pickpocketed or mugged, but this type of personal safety is only one of four broad categories measured in the study. The Economist is also looking out for your digital security — how common are cybercrime and identity theft? — as well as health safety (pollution, quality of hospitals) and infrastructure safety (roads, rails, pedestrian deaths).

11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling

A few interesting tidbits from the report:

Barcelona, long infamous for pickpockets, has taken steps to get safer; crime has dropped by 32 percent over the past three years.

– In a comparison of perception vs. reality, the study found that Americans tend to feel less safe than they really are (based on their cities’ rankings in the list), while locals in Middle Eastern cities such as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are not actually as secure as they feel.

– Safety is only one factor in determining the world’s best cities. After combining various indexes — including not just Safe Cities but also Liveability Rankings, Cost of Living and more — the Economist came up with a different winner: Toronto was voted the overall best place to live.

Essential Hotel Safety Tips

Which cities would you consider the most safe?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

In light of all the precipitation flurrying around in our forecasts and our backyards, we figured why sully winter’s reputation with complaints about shoveling and commuting? Winter can be a downright beautiful season, and it’s so much prettier when you can look and don’t have to touch. We bring you five frozen snowscapes from across the globe to remind you that winter’s wrath can be worth a serious marvel (right after you’re done digging yourself out of it).

Vogel, Triglav natural park, Julian Alps, Slovenia
Triglav National Park in the Julian Alps of Slovenia

The only national park in scenic Slovenia, Triglav gains its name from the country’s highest mountain. Its first recorded ascent was in 1778.

jade dragon snow mountain yunnan china
Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Yunnan Province, in Southwestern China

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is a mountain massif, or small mountain range in southwest China. Its highest peak, Shanzidou, has only been climbed once — by an American expedition team in 1987.

How to Pack for a Winter Vacation

siberian winter in tobolsk
The Old Siberian Capital of Tobolsk

Once a capital of Siberia, the town of Tobolsk is located at the confluence of the Tobol and Irtysh rivers. Once a strong center of Russian colonization, the region declined when it was bypassed by the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It is now one of Russia’s largest petrochemical complexes.

patagonia ice glaciers
A Vast Glacier in Patagonia

Shared by Argentina and Chile, Patagonia is a dense region of natural wonders, including this stretch of glacier that goes for miles. The Perito Moreno glacier is one of the region’s top tourist attractions.

winter greenland tasiilaq
The Town of Tasiilq in East Greenland

With about 2,000 inhabitants, Tasiilaq is the most populous community on the remote eastern coast of Greenland. This tundra region occasionally experiences piteraqs, or cold and damaging winds. Piteraq means “that which attacks you” in the local language.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

torii gate japan


Population: 127 million

Currency: Japanese yen

Phrase to Know: Arigato (thank you)

Fun Fact: Japan was the first country to develop cube-shaped watermelons, which farmers mold into their distinctive shape by putting transparent boxes around the fruit as they’re growing. Square watermelons are easier to ship and fit better into Japanese refrigerators, which are often small.

We Recommend: Spend the night in a Buddhist temple on Mount Koya. By night you’ll enjoy vegetarian meals with the monks and sleep in simple tatami rooms; during the day you can explore an ancient cemetery and visit a rock garden.

12 Best Japan Experiences

Have you been to Japan? What was your favorite spot?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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 breathtaking bays.

Would you rather …

… sail through the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, or …

kotor bay montenegro



… relax at Bacuit Bay in El Nido, on Palawan Island in the Philippines?

bacuit bay el nido palawan island philippines


Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor is particularly beautiful when approached by boat; you can also drive along it on a day trip from Dubrovnik, Croatia. Take time to explore the charming medieval town of Kotor. Bacuit Bay is speckled with limestone islands where travelers can hike or snorkel. You can also take a scenic boat ride out into the bay.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

passengers at airport baggage counterI remember the days when free wireless Internet in a hotel lobby, let alone your own room, was a luxury. Now, the lack of available Wi-Fi in any corner of a country is a deterrent to visitors who are used to the privilege.

In Germany, for instance, the lack of free and available Wi-Fi to tourists is such a problem it has reached the priority list of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Skift reports. According to the story, “Europe’s largest economy offers just 1.9 wireless hotspots per 10,000 inhabitants, compared with 4.8 in the U.S., 29 in the U.K. and 37 in South Korea, according to a study by Eco, a German association representing 800 Internet companies.” These restrictions are due to laws that hold public Internet providers responsible for the illegal activities of customers using their connection. By loosening these restrictions, Germany hopes to not only improve user accessibility, but the economy, through digital initiatives aimed at helping German technology companies compete with the likes of Facebook and Google, according to the story. So do your part by purchasing a stein of beer and Bavarian pretzel; Instagram said beer and pretzel and voila! Instant added marketing.

Nearby, Italy has the same idea, according to Engadget, but its plan is not just to improve Wi-Fi, but to make it free to the public. A recent proposal from lawmakers intends to create thousands of new hotspots over a three-year period, costing $6.3 million. Not only would it improve connection speeds for residents, but the popular tourist destination is hoping that visitors may be more encouraged to connect and share their trip during their time in Italy. See designer merchandise; tweet about your shopping spree — you get the idea.

Travel Tech: 7 Simple Hacks to Make Your Trip Better

Many countries already offer readily available Internet in tourist hot zones such as airports, cafes, museums, you name it. France, recently named the most visited country in the world in 2013 according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, offers more than 260 hotspots in Paris alone. Hong Kong is another top destination with its own free, public Wi-Fi service. Last year, CNN reported on Taiwan when it became one of the first countries to not only offer free Wi-Fi on a mass scale to citizens, but also to visitors. The government-backed iTaiwan is now accessible with just a passport as ID at any tourism counter. The same is true in Japan, according to Mashable. Armed with just a passport, travelers can register for free Wi-Fi cards at the airport, for use at roughly 45,000 hotspots in Eastern Japan.

It’s hard to say whether the lack of Wi-Fi would affect my decision to go somewhere — I think I’d go anyway (heck, I just spent a full week in Grenada without any reception at all, so I guess there’s your answer). But looking back at how lost I was merely crossing the border into Canada without cell reception and with no immediate access to Google Maps, TripAdvisor or Yelp to guide my way around Montreal, a little free Wi-Fi certainly goes a long way.

In an era when many are torn between traveling to “get away from it all” and documenting their travels live, or using Internet research to get around, where do you stand? Has Wi-Fi become a necessity, or is it still a luxury?


– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Every so often, when I’m stuck at home between trips and need a little jolt of wanderlust, I wander over to Vimeo.com and go hunting for travel videos. If I can’t be exploring a new place right now, at least I can spend a few minutes living vicariously through someone else’s footage. And there’s no better inspiration for future trips!

For example, check out this dreamy time-lapse video of the midnight sun in Iceland — I guarantee you’ll want to go.



Also shot in Europe but with an entirely different mood and focus is “Barcelona GO!”, which takes viewers on a frenetic trip around this colorful Spanish city, from narrow medieval lanes to grand cathedrals and concert halls:



This video set in India is so vivid I can practically taste the curry:



I’m ending with my favorite — a gorgeous, contemplative look at Japan in wintertime. Keep an eye out for the Jigokudani snow monkeys.



3 Time-Lapse Videos to Get You in the Mood for Traveling

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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 religious buildings in incredible locations.

When traveling, would you rather…

… explore a floating mosque in Malaysia, or …

kota kinabalu floating mosque malaysia



… visit a clifftop monastery in Greece?

monastery of the holy trinity meteora greece


Malaysia is home to several mosques built over the water to give them the appearance of floating. The one above is in Kota Kinabalu. In Meteora, Greece, visitors can check out a half-dozen spectacular monasteries built atop massive rocks. Shown here is the Holy Trinity Monastery, which can be reached via a steep uphill hike. (If you’re not up to the physical challenge, visit the more accessible St. Stephen’s Monastery instead.)

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

mexico day of the deadIt’s that time of year again: Halloween! If you’re like most people in the U.S., you’ve carved jack-o’-lanterns, hung cornstalks and purchased candy in preparation for the adorable costume-clad beggars who will likely be knocking on your door dressed as witches and skeletons and ghosts. That’s the ideal scenario, but you might instead find yourself dealing with scantily clad teenagers who demand goodies and then egg your home when they’re turned away.

If you’re hoping to get out of Dodge for this potentially horrifying holiday, take a peek at how four other countries handle Halloween.

Ireland
Ireland is considered the birthplace of Halloween, which is based on Samhain, the annual Celtic festival that acknowledged dead walking among the living and marked the end of harvest season. Although Halloween in Ireland is now celebrated in much the same way as it is in the U.S., activities like bonfires and parties are generally front and center, especially for children, who can win small prizes like candy and coins by playing themed games.

Mexico
In Mexico, locals celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) over a two-day period that begins on November 1. Festivals, parties, food and themed activities mark the occasion, which coincides with the Catholic religion’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Skeletons have become synonymous with the holiday, which celebrates the lives of the departed rather than mourning their deaths.

Learn More About the Day of the Dead

China
Teng Chieh, China‘s version of Halloween, finds participants lighting lanterns to help guide the spirits of dead relatives, for whom they also leave refreshments. Some locals also choose to make paper boats, which are then burned to release the souls of those who have died but haven’t received proper burial.

France
If what you actually want to do is escape Halloween altogether, plan a trip to France. Although it becomes more well known there every year, thanks to North American influences, the holiday is still generally obscure and not widely celebrated.

Trick or Travel: The World’s Most Haunted Destinations

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

I admit I have a spooky streak: It’s more curious than morbid, but I find myself touring cemeteries (for the history! And architecture!) and waiting for the day when I can finally pay a visit to the Overlook Hotel — inspiration for “The Shining” (I’m a big Kubrick fan). If this sounds like your idea of fun too, and you are looking to plan your next vacation with an excursion into the paranormal (or an actual stay on location), you may want to investigate the following supposedly haunted sites. All locations were found on a list of the most haunted places in the world, from a U.K. website called Haunted Rooms.

haunted ancient ram inn gloucestershire englandAncient Ram Inn, Gloucestershire, England
The British Isles have their share of folklore, but the story of this ancient inn is no fairy tale. Built in the 12th century, this building is said to occupy a former pagan burial ground and has been the site of child sacrifices and devil worship. Currently serving as a bed and breakfast, guests report being touched and pulled, hearing voices and feeling an evil presence. Its location at the intersection of two ley lines is said to be a conduit for spiritual activity.

13 Best England Experiences


haunted castle of good hope in cape town south africaCastle of Good Hope, Cape Town, South Africa
Supernatural sightings at this 17th-century castle built by the Dutch East India Company include a man repeatedly jumping off a castle wall, and an apparition known as the Lady in Grey who stalked the castle halls crying hysterically. Since a woman’s body was unearthed during a recent excavation, sightings of the Lady have vanished, but ringing bells and the ghost of a black dog are among the curiosities still experienced here.

haunted banff springs hotel in alberta canadaBanff Springs Hotel, Alberta, Canada
Frighteningly similar to the eerie aura of “The Shining,” this hotel set in the Canadian countryside was built more than 125 years ago and has been the stage for several strange encounters. As in the cult classic film, a family was murdered in one of its rooms, which has been bricked up ever since (but they can still be seen in the hallway). A bride is reported to have fallen down the stairs and broken her neck after her dress caught fire, but a friendlier ghost — a popular bellman from the 60s and 70s — also resides here and still tries to help guests to their rooms, turning on lights and opening doors.

11 Offbeat Things to Do in Canada


haunted brissac castle in maine-et-loire franceChateau de Brissac, Maine-et-Loire, France
The tallest castle in France is picturesque for sure, but has a dark past. A 15th-century double murder left the home with a specter known as the Green Lady. Story has it that if she looks at you, there are holes where her eyes and nose would be. The current Duke of Brissac and his family reside in the castle to this day and seem unaffected, but guests have reported early-morning moans and sightings of the green ghoul.

A Dozen Things You’ll Find in France


haunted island of the dolls in xochimilco mexicoIsland of the Dolls, Xochimilco, Mexico
Perhaps the creepiest of all, this lakeside town near Mexico City is not only home to a small and terrifying population of mutilated dolls, but the story behind them is truly chilling. In the 1920s, an accident left a girl drowned. In the 1950s, a recluse named Julian began communicating with the spirit of the young girl and leaving dolls for her on the island. After many years, Julian felt like he could no longer appease her and confessed to his nephew that he felt she would harm him. Later that day he was found face down in the exact location where the girl reportedly drowned. To this day, residents report whisperings from the dolls and wandering eyes.

haunted lawang sewu building in semarang indonesia Lawang Sewu, Semarang, Indonesia
If the name (translation: “thousand doors”) isn’t a bit mysterious as it is, the building was occupied by Japanese forces during WWII and used as a prison, where many were tortured or executed. Believed to be one of the most haunted places in Indonesia, this building (also built by the Dutch East India Company) is said to host multiple ghosts, including a Dutch woman who committed suicide there, headless spirits and a vampiric ghost, or kuntilanak, as it’s known in the region’s folklore.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Photo of Ancient Ram Inn used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Synwell.

Photo of Island of the Dolls used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Esparta Palma.