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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Discover the best travel articles you may have missed this week.

phnom penh


Visiting Phnom Penh: How I Finally Relaxed in a City That Scared Me
This compelling essay from Conde Nast Traveler explores a traveler’s experience in Phnom Penh, where she skipped the Killing Fields and instead went searching for Cambodia’s more hopeful present.

How to Get Compensated — Generously — for Delayed Flights and Dirty Hotel Rooms
Travel + Leisure profiles a new app called Service that will advocate on your behalf to get you reimbursed for snafus such as lost luggage, incorrect hotel charges and flight delays. (It’s not limited to travel either, so between trips you can use the app to do battle with your cable provider.)

In Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom to Myself
It’s unlikely that many of us will ever travel to Saudi Arabia, so it’s fascinating to see this in-depth look from the New York Times. The writer visits an island with only one hotel, explores pre-Islamic tombs and attends a local festival.

17 Incredibly Amazing Women Who Will Inspire You to Travel Solo at Least Once
BuzzFeed interviews 17 female travel bloggers about their best advice for traveling alone as a woman. “Waking up each day and thinking ‘I can go anywhere I want’ is one of the most incredible, liberating feelings a person can experience,” writes one blogger. We couldn’t agree more.

These Amazing Photos of Thailand Will Satisfy Your Wanderlust
If all you’re looking for today is to scroll through gorgeous pictures of exotic places, Rough Guides has your back with this photo essay. Dreamy!

Monotony and ‘Moments of Terror’ Mark Search for Flight 370
Nearly two years after the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, both the fate of the plane and its location are still shrouded in mystery. This AP story captures the difficult and often tedious job of searching the ocean floor with sonar for the lost aircraft.

What It’s Like to Live on a Cruise Ship for 8 Years
Forget retiring in Florida — the Washington Post profiles an 87-year-old woman who’s spending her golden years on a cruise ship. Lee Wachtstetter began her life aboard Crystal Serenity a few years after her husband’s death.

New Senate Bill Proposes End to “Ridiculous” Airline Fees
Two Democratic senators have put forward a bill that would allow the Department of Transportation to prevent airlines from raising fees or charging prices that are “unreasonable or disproportional to the costs” of a service. Will the proposal ever make it into law? Here’s hoping.

This week’s stunning travel video will put the Philippines on your bucket list if it’s not already there. Do yourself a favor and view it in full screen.


— written by Sarah Schlichter

Among the world’s busiest airports, Seoul’s Incheon International Airport and Singapore Changi Airport provide the best customer services and amenities, according to a new survey from Airports Council International (ACI).

The two Asian airports provide modern amenities and entertainment options for travelers, including Incheon’s ice skating rink and Changi’s butterfly garden. Amenities like those make for a better traveler experience, an ACI representative told Skift.

singapore changi airport


The Airports Council International, a trade association for the world’s airports, interviewed 550,000 passengers at more than 300 airports around the world, asking them about such topics as checking in, cleanliness, security, airport facilities, food and beverage, and retail offerings. Seoul and Changi tied for first place among airports handling more than 40 million passengers a year.

Indianapolis International Airport was ranked the top airport in North America for the fourth straight year. The airport, which sees more than 7 million travelers annually, has 2,000 acres of protected land surrounding it. Researchers study bats there, and last year, conservationists added an apiary to breed honeybees. The airport is also home to the largest solar farm at any airport in the world. Inside, the airport is filled with art and local eateries.

Five North American airports tied for second place: Grand Rapids, Tampa, Dallas Love Field, Jacksonville and Ottawa.

The best airports in other regions, according to the survey, are:

Africa: Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport in Mauritius

Europe: A three-way tie among three Russian airports — Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International, Pulkovo International in St. Petersburg and Sochi International

Middle East: Amman Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan

Latin America/Caribbean: Jose Joaquin de Olmedo International Airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador

The Best Airports for Layovers
9 Ways to Make the Most of Your Layover

Which airports do you think provide the best overall customer experience?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Check out this week’s essential travel reads.

room service at hotel


Things You Should Never Order from Room Service
Do you know why you should order a room service steak a little rarer than you normally would, or why you should probably just pass on a shrimp cocktail? Conde Nast Traveler offers some fun facts about how room service works and which menu items aren’t a good bet.

Airlines to Introduce an ‘Economy Minus’ Class
Flying coach is already bad enough — but Fortune reports that a new, even worse class of service is trending across the airline industry. “Basic economy” (also known by some as “economy minus”) will cut even more amenities in order to offer bare-bones low fares. Book one of these tickets, and you can say goodbye to a free carry-on bag and advance seat assignments, among other things.

Hilarious Photos Show the Difference Between Travel Expectations and Travel Reality
This fun interactive piece from Matador Network pairs glossy, idealized pictures of travel attractions such as the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall of China with more realistic shots — think beaches covered in trash or monuments surrounded with thousands of tourists. Click on each photo to see its counterpart.

The Challenge of Taming Air Turbulence
The New York Times explores how airlines try to prepare for unexpected bumps in the air, and even questions whether warmer weather due to El Nino could cause turbulence to become more common. (The answer: no one quite knows.)

Man Who Has Visited More Than 300 McDonald’s Around the World Shares His Favorite Menu Items
The Independent profiles a Canadian traveler who has sampled fast food all over the planet. His favorite McDonald’s menu items include a dried fish sandwich in Sri Lanka, seaweed-seasoned fries in Japan and a bubble gum-flavored “McFizz” beverage in Singapore. (We’re not sure we’d try that last one.)

The Political Push to Destroy Hidden Hotel Fees Has Begun
We all hate showing up to a hotel and having unexpected costs such as resort fees and other surcharges tacked onto our bill. (See Hidden Hotel Fees for some examples.) Skift reports that U.S. Senator Claire McCaskell has introduced a bill that would require hotels and travel sites to reveal such fees at the time of booking. Sounds reasonable to us — we’ll see if Congress agrees.

Why You Can’t Trust GPS in China
Travel + Leisure takes a fascinating look at how digital maps — such as those on your smartphone or GPS device — are slightly inaccurate in China due to the country’s security regulations. For example, a building in Beijing that you’re standing right next to could appear to be a few hundred yards away on your phone.

This week’s featured video features timelapse footage of Vienna, whooshing the viewer from theaters and monuments to parks and quiet streets.


6 Lies Your Hotel Might Tell You
33 Ways to Sleep Better at a Hotel

— written by Sarah Schlichter

gubeikou great wall of chinaIt’s that time of the week! Catch up on all the great travel stories you may have missed over the past seven days.

Walking the Great Wall’s Wild Side
This engaging story from the Alaska Airlines blog details a hiking adventure along an unrestored section of the Great Wall of China. Along the way the writer befriends three local women and tests his own bravery in the face of narrow paths and precipitous ledges.

Air Emergencies: Are Airlines Telling You What You Need to Know?
Canada’s CBC News reports that many airline safety briefings leave out a key bit of information that could save your life in a crash. A safety researcher quoted in the article says that using the brace position (in which you stabilize your body by bending over with your head against the seat in front of you) can “reduce severity of injuries” and “reduce deaths.” The position is illustrated on the safety card in your seatback pocket but often not mentioned in safety videos or live demonstrations by flight attendants.

How Scientists Are ‘Hacking’ the Body to Override Jet Lag
Could flashing lights help cure jet lag? That’s the latest from Conde Nast Traveler, which reports on a new study that tested short flashes of light administered 10 seconds apart while study participants were sleeping. This treatment is believed to help the brain acclimate more quickly to time changes.

Nanyuki: The Kenyan Town Where Your Valentine’s Roses Are Grown
We had no idea until we read this Rough Guides article that Kenya was a key supplier of roses to the European Union. The writer profiles the market town of Nanyuki, an expat hub with a perfect climate for growing flowers.

Minimum Airline Seat Standards Could Become Law
Traveler advocate Christopher Elliott brings welcome news in a post on LinkedIn, writing about a recently proposed Congressional bill that would establish a minimum size for airplane seats (which seem to be shrinking by the day). We’re keeping our fingers crossed!

Life in Paris’s 10th and 11th Arrondissements, 3 Months After the Attacks
New York Magazine interviews a number of locals in the areas of Paris most affected by November’s terrorist attacks, from a rapper who wrote a song about the tragedy to a restaurant owner trying to move past her anxiety.

A Robot Butler Is Replacing Humans in Some California Hotels
The next time you ring the front desk staff to ask if they have a spare toothbrush, you might find the real-life equivalent of R2-D2 bringing it to your door. Business Insider reports on a growing trend of robots in hotels, with about a dozen properties now employing them in California.

This week’s video features droolworthy footage from the Norwegian fjords, where a dedicated young guitarist hauled his instrument up to a few of the region’s most spectacular overlooks.


Top Tips for Fighting Jet Lag
The Best and Worst Days to Fly

— written by Sarah Schlichter

mazar i sharif mosqueEver dreamed about taking a trip to Afghanistan? How about Pakistan, Chechnya or Somalia? For travelers with a lust for adventure and a high tolerance for risk, there’s a company that will take you to these and many other seemingly dangerous places.

Untamed Borders was founded in 2006 by Kausar Hussain and James Wilcox, two adventure guides who met in the mountains of Afghanistan. Their mission is to offer “unparalleled access to some of the world’s most interesting and inaccessible places,” according to the company’s website.

Itineraries include an annual “Melons & Grapes — Grand Afghan Tour,” a two-week trip that combines a few days in Kabul with time in remote rural areas and ancient cities; a weeklong journey called “Chechnya, Dagestan and Russia’s Deep South,” which stops in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Derbent, a fortified Persian hill town; and a 16-day exploration of the tribal states in northeastern India. More active adventures are also available, including horse trekking in Tajikistan, glacier trekking in Pakistan and even running a marathon in Afghanistan.

The group size is always small — no more than 12 people, and often fewer — both for safety reasons and to keep the trips flexible. The company can also arrange custom trips for journalists, climbers, skiers, photographers or independent travelers interested in certain areas.

Of course, the big question is: Just how safe are these trips? The FAQ section on the company’s website notes that certain parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan are significantly more dangerous than others, and the trips are deliberately planned in the safer areas. In an article on CNN, the company notes that months of planning go into each trip, including plenty of brainstorming for worst-case scenarios.

The company relies on government warnings as well as first-hand info from local guides and contacts living in each country. On some trips, groups travel not only with guides but also with a security detail. All itineraries are subject to change if the situation on the ground becomes unstable, and guests must have travel insurance that covers them in the country they’re visiting. (Note: This may be difficult to find, but Untamed Borders can recommend a few specialty insurers.)

Such remote adventures don’t come cheap. Organized group trips start at 1,600 GBP per person (about $2,300 USD as of this writing), which includes accommodations, transportation, guides and breakfast. Travelers are responsible for flights, visas, insurance and other meals. If you’re traveling solo, you won’t need to pay a single supplement, but you will be expected to share a room with someone else in the group.

Travel Warnings and Advisories
18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling

Would you consider a trip with Untamed Borders?

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

Grenada, Micronesia, Tuvalu and Samoa are among the most forward-thinking and ethical travel destinations in the world, according to a California-based tourism nonprofit. In fact, seven out of the top 10 destinations making the biggest strides in environmental protection, social welfare, human rights and animal welfare are islands.

Each year, an all-volunteer cast from an organization called Ethical Traveler does a deep dive into the policies and practices of countries in the developing world. The team then selects the nations that are making the most progress in protecting their environment and their people. The winners must also be attractive travel destinations, offering “unspoiled natural beauty, great outdoor activities and the opportunity to interact with local people and cultures in a meaningful, mutually enriching way.”

apia samoa beach boats


The full list of 2016 winners, in alphabetical order:

– Cabo Verde
Dominica
– Grenada
– Micronesia
– Mongolia
Panama
– Samoa
– Tonga
– Tuvalu
Uruguay

Why so many islands? “Climate change affects islands dramatically, so they tend to be very aware of the importance of effective environmental policies,” the report said.

Green Travel Tips

Panama was praised for escalating its reforestation efforts and for low unemployment rates. Cabo Verde in Africa is seeing more women holding high-ranking leadership positions. The Caribbean island of Dominica provides widespread free healthcare to its citizens and works to protect the marine life along its coast.

mongolia herder eagle


Uruguay gets 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources and has made education of children a priority. And in Mongolia, a half-million people — including 70 percent of all herders — use solar energy.

Acknowledging that “no country is perfect,” Ethical Traveler notes nonetheless that visiting the winning countries allows travelers to use economic leverage to reward good practices.

Slideshow: Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?
Find Your Ideal Island Escape

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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

Okay, so winter technically hasn’t even officially arrived yet — but we’re already getting sick of short, gray days and long, dark nights. And we’ve still got several months to go!

To cheer ourselves up on days like these, we naturally turn our thoughts to thoughts of travel. Today we’re mentally transporting ourselves to the following vibrant destinations as an escape from the dreary winter landscapes here at home.

burano italy


The charming little fishing village of Burano, located in the Venetian Lagoon, is painted every color of the rainbow.

Photos: 11 Best Italy Experiences

little india singapore


Get a taste of another culture in Singapore’s Little India neighborhood, where you can visit a temple, browse bustling markets and nosh on authentic Indian dishes.

Singapore City Guide

keukenhof lisse netherlands tulips spring


Now is a perfect time to book a spring trip to see the magnificent Keukenhof gardens in Holland, which are only open for a couple of months a year.

The World’s 9 Most Gorgeous Gardens

trinidad cuba classic car


With its fascinating culture, vibrant cities and warm sunshine, Cuba will cure any case of the winter blahs.

A Walking Tour of Old Havana

Where are you planning to travel this winter? (And if you’re not sure where to go, take our quiz!)

— 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