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!
In this month’s winning review, a traveler has a life-changing volunteer experience at Sri Lanka’s Millennium Elephant Foundation. “It’s 7:00 in the morning,” writes TS Buchanan. “It’s 35 degrees [Celsius] already, the sweat is pouring off me and I’m shoveling crap. Literally … shovelling crap. But not just any crap, I’m shovelling elephant dung. And I’m having the time of my life!”
Catch up on the most interesting travel pieces you may have missed this week.
Please Stop Saying You Want to Go to Cuba Before It’s Ruined
In this incisive op-ed for Flood Magazine, a Cuban writer challenges the widespread view of Cuba as a romanticized, “stuck in time” destination that’s going to be ruined by a wave of mass tourism from the U.S. “What exactly do you think will ruin Cuba?” Natalie Morales writes. “Running water? Available food? … Access to proper healthcare?” It’s a must-read for anyone interested in visiting Cuba and seeing what it’s truly like to live there. (Warning: There’s some colorful language.)
Inside the Radical Airline Cabins of the Future
Vogue offers an intriguing look at how airplanes might be designed in the future. Windowless cabins? Stackable sleeping pods? A small viewing bubble on top of the plane? Welcome to a brave new world.
In Praise of Small-Town Travel
National Geographic celebrates the pleasures of visiting towns and villages rather than just big cities, including the slower rhythms of life and the chance to connect with local people. The writer also recommends her favorite small towns on each continent.
Doctors Share What Really Happens When There’s an Emergency Mid-Flight
Conde Nast Traveler interviewed several medical professionals to gather these stories of in-flight emergencies. One doctor delivered a baby; another couldn’t save a patient but used the tragedy to petition the U.S. government for a requirement that all planes have defibrillators and expanded medical kits. (Fortunately for all of us, he was successful.)
The Abandoned Mansions of Billionaires
BBC Travel takes us into the fascinating Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, India, where a collection of opulent havelis (mansions) are falling into decay. Covered with magnificent frescoes, these buildings are only just starting to be preserved as museums or heritage hotels.
Inside the Very Real World of ‘Slum Tourism’
This thoughtful essay from Conde Nast Traveler explores the ethical ramifications of visiting underprivileged neighborhoods as a tourist. Yes, the tours educate travelers and often provide financial support to the communities affected, but do they exploit the misery of others?
Man with Muscular Dystrophy to Travel Through Europe as ‘Human Backpack’
In the “heartwarming” category comes this story from WNCN, a news station in North Carolina, about a man whose friends have volunteered to help him explore Europe by carrying him on their backs. Kevan Chandler weighs 65 pounds and has muscular dystrophy, which causes progressive muscle weakness. His friends hope to help him see sights that would be inaccessible to him in a wheelchair.
This Could Be the World’s Largest Passport
The Smithsonian profiles a man who once had a passport with a whopping 331 pages. (His current one has 192.) Eric Oborski racked up some 15 million frequent flier miles and regularly visited embassies in Tokyo and Bangkok to add extra pages to his passport every time he ran out of space for new stamps.
Neighbors Now Have a Way to Complain About Bad Airbnb Hosts
Airbnb isn’t always popular with its hosts’ neighbors, who might not be thrilled by the revolving door of strangers staying next door. But Skift reports that the company is adding a new tool to allow neighbors to comment on guests’ behavior; this feedback will be reviewed by Airbnb’s customer support team.
This week’s video captures the colors, sounds and energy of India.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
It’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.
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.
Ever 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.
Read 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.
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: