Before my recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I was warned by a number of colleagues, relatives and friends (including one who’s Dominican) that I should be careful. Not just “don’t drink the water” careful, but “wear no jewelry, don’t make eye contact and don’t even think about going outside at night” careful. The good news: I survived my trip safe and sound. But with so many dire warnings, I didn’t stop to consider some of the more practical (and less dangerous) issues I might encounter.
Rental Car Runaround
Scenario: Even though I’d reserved a rental car ahead of time for pickup at the airport, it still took an hour for the paperwork to go through — and I was the only customer.
Lesson: Because of differences in languages and processing methods, you should always leave extra time for things like this, especially in places with a slower pace of life.
Scenario: After the first time I stopped to refuel, the car wouldn’t start. I called the rental agency, who told me that the vehicle’s keyless entry safety feature was prohibiting the engine from turning over. I clicked a few buttons, and the car started right up.
Lesson: Ask if there’s anything specific you should know about the car before you leave the rental agency. Ask also for a phone number where you can reach someone if you have problems (and keep a phrasebook handy in case the person on the other end doesn’t speak your language).
The First 10 Minutes of Your Car Rental
Scenario: On the day I flew home, I tried to return the rental car an hour earlier than scheduled — but nobody was at the desk. I waited 20 minutes before calling the customer service number again. I was told that because I was an hour early, nobody would be there to take the key. I was instructed to hide it behind the computer at the rental counter.
Lesson: In other countries, not all businesses are open during what we would consider “normal” operating hours. This is especially true in locations that don’t see many tourists. Treat rental car reservations like doctor’s appointments: show up only at the times you specify for rental and return.
Scenario: While driving from the airport to my hotel, the GPS in my rental car kept screaming at me to “turn right” when no right turns were present, leaving me lost in Santo Domingo for two hours. I called my hotel’s front desk, and they were able to get me on the right path.
Lesson: Don’t rely entirely on technology when traveling. If possible, find and print directions to take with you in case your cell phone or GPS gets lost, breaks or dies along the way. And carry the phone number of someone at your destination in case you find yourself in a pinch.
3 C’s: Credit Cards, Currency and Cell Phones
Scenario: My credit card was denied when I tried to purchase snacks. I paid with cash and promptly called the company to discuss the problem. (I always call to alert my bank and my credit card company before traveling to avoid having my cards blocked when I need them most.) I was told that some card companies won’t allow transactions in certain locations if they’re considered “high-risk.”
Lesson: Sure, you know to tell your card company that you’ll be globetrotting, but it’s also a good idea to bone up on its policies regarding the specific places you’re visiting. Keep the company’s phone number handy and carry cash as a backup.
The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas
Scenario: On my last day, I made a wrong turn on the way to the airport. (Thanks again, GPS.) I found myself at a pesos-only tollbooth (having purposefully gotten rid of my remaining pesos immediately prior) and conjured up my high-school Spanish to ask if they’d accept U.S. dollars. When two heavily armed police came out of the booth, I took that as a firm “no.” But one officer did offer me 500 pesos — enough for the toll — in exchange for a $20 bill. He made a $10 profit on the deal, but you don’t refuse a man with a machine gun when he stands in the way of your flight back to civilization.
Lesson: Always carry enough local currency to get you through end of your trip. Airports usually offer exchange services, so don’t worry about having too much leftover cash.
Scenario: Although I added international texting and data coverage to my cell phone plan before embarking on this adventure, I turned down the international calling plan since I didn’t think I’d use it. But with all my hapless calls to the hotel, car rental agency and credit card company, I used quite a few minutes. At $2.95 a pop, I’m now facing a pretty nasty bill.
Lesson: Always, always say yes to a calling plan. If you run into trouble, phone calls are almost always your best means of finding help. Keep in mind, too, that if you’re traveling abroad, your phone will be roaming the second it connects to a network, even if you don’t make any calls. Because service can be spotty in some locations, ask your carrier about availability and consider purchasing a prepaid phone when you arrive at your destination.
International Cell Phone Guide
–written by Ashley Kosciolek
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 we’re thinking warm, tropical thoughts with this photo of swimmers at Dunn’s River Falls, Jamaica.
Jamaica Trip Reviews by Real Travelers
Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to email@example.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)
Slideshow: Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
Sometimes my mind wanders back to the haze of that careless week in the Caribbean. Floating through the hotel pool (my pink visor, my white tiger bathing suit). Throwing breakfast’s crumbs from the balcony to the birds in the bushes below. Posing near a hibiscus as big as my head. I spent part of my time with a vacationing Brit at the same hotel, and part of it with a local boy. I don’t quite remember either of their names, but the Brit spent most of his days in his underwear (the pictures are starting to fade, with curled-up edges, but they still make me smile).
Memories can be a trip of their own, especially first memories. My first memory was a travel memory — I was about 2 1/2 when my parents took me to Barbados.
Because I was an only child, my younger years were well documented. Paging through the photo albums, my memory has certainly been jogged (the school events, the neon bows). But from the best that I can judge, the clips that come to me from Barbados are the real thing, not a rendering. Surprisingly, my near-drowning experience in the hotel pool left less of an impression than the sweet, melting consolation of the Haagen-Dazs ice cream bar I was offered afterward. The only other sense I connect to this first international (and conscious) experience is the sound of steel drums. I can’t hear that light distinctive chime without being carried back. For many, it’s a call back to the tropical, the paradisiacal, the exotic; and for me, they are all of that melded with my first mysterious impressions of this earth.
Get Inspired: Around the World in 8 Amazing Videos
I’m sure it wasn’t my parents’ overarching plan to instill a lifelong wanderlust in me from 31 months, but it’s them I have to thank for exposing me to the world from such a young age, and continuing to support that plunge into the unknown. Whether the unknown is life or a new country, for me it all seems to meet at the same place in my memories.
What was your first travel memory? Don’t feel the need to stretch back to diapers! Crammed inside a hot car on a family roadtrip? Flying for a school competition? Shake up those reminiscences and share them in the comments below.
– written by Brittany Chrusciel
Nod your head if you think there’s nothing more to Nassau than its proximity to the Atlantis Resort and Casino and a plethora of straw markets and high-end shops. I’d be willing to bet just about everyone reading this is nodding their head right now. I know that until recently, that’s what I thought. And because of that, Nassau was fairly low on my list of must-visit destinations.
But on a recent cruise visit to this port city, I learned there’s so much more than meets the eye.
I learned, for instance, that within just a few years of Christopher Columbus “discovering” the Bahamas, all the indigenous people had been wiped out and that technically everyone who today hails from there comes from immigrant ancestors.
I also learned that the Bahamas are a unique blend of British and American culture and influences. Though “founded” by the British in the early 1700’s and still a part of the Commonwealth, the Bahamian islands also played a role in the American Revolution and the Civil War, and were a hotbed of rum-running activity during Prohibition. In fact, some of Nassau’s architecture is classic American colonial, a vestige of its days as a home-in-exile for American loyalists after their side lost the Revolutionary War.
And for seafood lovers, I learned that conch (pronounced conk) isn’t just used for fritters and chowder. Because the conch shell is incredibly hard and durable, it’s often ground into dust and added to construction materials. A good many of the buildings in downtown Nassau are partly made of conch shell.
All of these facts and more were imparted to me by Alanna Rodgers, a young Bahamian entrepreneur whose Tru Bahamian Food Tours launched just two months ago. At least once a day Rodgers leads tourists on the three-hour Bites of Nassau Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour, giving participants the chance to try a variety of local foods and learn a great deal about the Bahamas from culture to history, architecture to government, and religion to pirates.
12 International Foods to Try Before You Die
The tour was the high point of my seven-day Bahamas cruise and offered a truly fascinating look at a country and port that is too often dismissed for its three S’s (sun, sand and shopping).
Among the culinary highlights of the tour were:
Baked macaroni and cheese at Bahamian Cookin’, the first stop on our tasting tour. While everyone else got conch fritters (I don’t eat shellfish), I had a yummy macaroni and cheese dish at this small restaurant, which is owned and operated by three generations of Nassau women.
Jamaican jerk chicken that didn’t burn going down. Turns out there are some 10,000 Jamaicans in the Bahamas, making up a significant subset of the population. At the hole-in-the-wall Pepper Pot Grill, the menu is pretty much whatever the chef decides to cook, but there are usually a couple of choices, and the jerk chicken was delicious without being overly spicy.
An invitation to the Governor General’s house for tea. Okay, so the Governor General didn’t actually invite me personally, but as part of the country’s People to People project all tourists are invited to a special one-hour tea party (4 – 5 p.m.) on the last Friday of every month (except December). During the event visitors can chat with the Governor General’s wife, sample local bush teas, watch a Bahamian fashion show and enjoy live music.
Chocolate. There’s nothing particularly Bahamian about the Graycliff Chocolatier, though the Italian family that owns it has lived in the Bahamas for many years. But for this chocoholic, stopping by for a freshly made caramel salted dark chocolate was divine. Many local ingredients are used in the chocolates, like coconut and pineapple, and the company is hoping to develop a local cocoa plantation.
Greek salad. The Greek salad itself was less of a highlight than learning that Greeks make up a significant part of the Bahamian merchant class, that they own most of the jewelry stores on Bay Street (downtown’s main street), and that the son’s owner is married to a former Miss Bahamas. Oh, and many Bahamian politicians stop by there for lunch – the Secretary of Foreign Affairs was there when we were.
How to Save Money on Food When You Travel
– written by Dori Saltzman
Last month we reported that U.S. citizens can once again put Cuba on their bucket list. A number of license renewals have finally been issued to cultural tour operators by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), after an unexplained delay.
This week I caught up with Michael Vanderbeek of the Port Everglades Department, who told me that the port has been speaking to cruise lines for a number of months, with a view to operating day trips from Fort Lauderdale to Havana (about a five-hour journey), so sure are they that the travel ban to this wonderful island will be lifted. Vanderbeek and I spoke about this yesterday, ahead of the election, and judging by last night’s result, they could well be right. Cuba could soon be closer than you think to the U.S.
I’m lucky — as a Brit, I can travel to Cuba whenever I want, and I fulfilled that dream back in 2006. The island had always been on my bucket list, but I’m not sure exactly why: Perhaps it was the romantic image combined with its uniqueness in a largely homogenized world.
I spent two weeks there: a few days in Havana, then to the far west to a tiny village called Maria La Gorda, and then on to Trinidad via Varadero. My trip was in turns maddening, exhilarating, saddening, fascinating, surprising and moving.
Maddening because nothing seemed to work, and you had to change your money into a tourist currency, shop in tourist stores and fill up with tourist-priced petrol; exhilarating when I talked politics and Fidel with locals (who, back then at least, were still “officially” not allowed to talk to tourists); saddening to see the poverty, the appalling food and the crumbling architecture; fascinating to get a glimpse into a culture that has been trapped in time for the best part of 50 years; surprising when I’d stumble upon some hidden gem of a restaurant or a sight; and moving when I gave away soap or pens, or gave someone a lift.
IndependentTraveler.com Readers Share Their Cuba Experiences
I spent much of my time there trying to reconcile a country that has some of the finest doctors in the world and the best education with one that, back then, banned free movement of its citizens (this restriction will lift in January) and where food stamps still exist, food is rationed and the gift of a bar of soap can move people to tears. It’s that all-too-common dilemma for a Western citizen who yearns to find a place in the world that isn’t full of Starbucks and McDonald’s and mobile phones, but at the same time sees a country whose people are yearning for just those things.
What I did pick up in my two weeks there was that things take a long time to change in Cuba. Stuff in the West that we take for granted is hampered by a glacier-slow bureaucratic process, wrapped up in years of inefficiency.
But things do change, and that is happening right now. The danger is if it happens too fast.
Before the revolution, Cuba was a U.S. playground. Should all the barriers come down in one go, it may become that again.
My advice: Go there now, before the changes alter the country forever.
9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should
– written by Adam Coulter
In August, we reported that Cuba trips could be in jeopardy for U.S. travelers, as many tour operators and cultural institutions that offered educational excursions to the long-verboten nation had not had their licenses renewed by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Fortunately, Americans can put Cuba back on their bucket lists, as a number of license renewals have finally been issued over the past few weeks. Organizations including Friendly Planet Travel, Insight Cuba and Grand Circle Foundation are now once again authorized to offer “people to people” trips to the Caribbean nation. These trips, authorized by the Obama administration last year, are required by the government to have a focus on cultural exchange with “meaningful interaction between the U.S. travelers and individuals in Cuba,” according to the OFAC’s guidelines.
We asked Peggy M. Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, why it took longer than expected for licenses to be renewed. “We were not given any explanation by OFAC as to the delay,” Goldman told us. “However, there was a change in the rules for granting people-to-people licenses in May of 2012, and that change, coupled with fewer people to work on the many applications, no doubt added to the delay in reviewing the applications.”
Cuba Trip Reviews by Real Travelers
The rule change was sparked by a speech from Cuban-American Congressman Marco Rubio that questioned whether the trips were “cover-ups for tourism,” reports the Associated Press. After this, the application for a license got significantly longer, incorporating increased scrutiny of the day-to-day itineraries of each proposed trip to Cuba. (Rubio had taken issue with such activities as salsa dancing and visits to the Cuban Ministry of Culture.)
“For Friendly Planet Travel, it meant a lot of extra time in preparing very detailed descriptions of each day on tour, plus other information,” said Goldman. “The sheer scope of the new applications must have been daunting for OFAC to review, and from what I understand, there was less staff than before to cope with the work. However, it appears OFAC has gotten on top of the work, because from what I’ve heard, a number of renewals as well as new licenses have been granted in recent days. We are obviously thrilled that we’ve been renewed for a period of two years.”
Given the high demand these trips have seen over the past year, we’re betting many travelers are thrilled too.
9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should
– written by Sarah Schlichter
We often talk about travel bucket lists filled with big-budget trips that require a lot of planning. They’re stressful, at times, because so much goes into them and we have such big expectations. There’s a reason these trips often stay on the bucket list for many years; it’s much easier to just escape, spur of the moment. So we keep a few trips in our back pocket. Not mega-bucket-list trips, but cheap and easy trips we could take without much planning and with minimal damage to our savings.
San Juan has been calling me lately. For about $520 total, my husband and I could fly there on AirTran. I’d stay at the Hotel Milano, only 15 minutes from the airport, but in the middle of the old city. The family-owned property has free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel, a necessity for me. I can imagine having coffee on the rooftop terrace.
Since this isn’t a bucket list destination for me, I wouldn’t feel any pressure to do anything except wander, eat empanadillas and drink rum. Since it is hurricane season in the Caribbean, I could most likely continue to do at least two of my intended activities should the weather turn foul.
A completely different, yet equally satisfying back-pocket trip, for me, would be Acadia National Park in Maine. I want to challenge myself on the Dorr Mountain trail, a series of granite steps up the mountain, much of it through the forest. (Can you imagine the autumn foliage?)
I’d fortify my hike with popovers on the lawn at Jordon Pond House. I’d stay at the Moseley Cottage Inn, preferably in a room with a working fireplace. Sure, the rate is a bit high for my strict budget, $205 per night, but my husband and I would drive to Maine, saving on airfare.
The qualifications for a back-pocket trip are simple: cheap, quick and no stress. Not much of an itinerary is required. Need inspiration? Check out our travel deals.
We’re all about extensive travel, with plenty of planning and packing. But sometimes we just have to throw a few things in a bag and go. That’s why we need a couple of trips in our back pocket. Which destinations are in yours?
– written by Jodi Thompson
At the beginning of this year, IndependentTraveler.com named Cuba one of its 9 Destinations to Visit in 2012, thanks to the relaxation of travel restrictions for Americans wanting to visit the long-forbidden nation. Under the loosened rules, many tour operators and cultural institutions began offering educational trips to Cuba that any traveler could book (prior access had largely been restricted to Americans visiting family in Cuba or traveling for religious purposes).
But these trips appear to be in peril once again. According to a report in the Detroit Free Press, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of the U.S. Treasury, has been extremely slow to renew licenses for travel organizations who want to offer educational Cuba tours — putting future trips in jeopardy.
InsightCuba.com, for example, has “pending OFAC license renewal” at the top of its list of tour offerings; the Free Press notes that the company has had to cancel its last two months of trips because its license expired in June. Other companies affected include National Geographic, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and more.
Cuba Trip Reviews by Real Travelers
It’s not clear if license renewals are not being promptly issued for political, bureaucratic or other reasons. In a statement provided to the Free Press, the U.S. Treasury had only this to say: “We have issued approximately 140 people-to-people licenses. We are doing our best to process both first-time applications and requests to renew existing licenses. We receive numerous such requests which are being handled in turn. It is our goal to respond in a timely matter.”
For now, if you see a company advertising Cuba tours, avoid disappointment by calling to ask when its OFAC license expires and whether the trip is guaranteed to run.
– 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
Swimming at Dunn’s River Falls, Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Skiing in Queenstown, New Zealand
Touring the (air-conditioned!) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Where would you like to cool off right about now?
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
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 or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.
The Deal: Major winter storms have hit the Midwest, and the darkest day of the year just happens to be Thursday. These tidings are reason enough to drop everything — even that fancy ribbon bow you’re struggling with, which is just going to get ripped off the present anyway — and run as fast as you can to the Caribbean.
Here’s more vindication for a vacation in the sun: the Islands of the Bahamas Tourism Board is offering up to $400 cash back for winter trips to said destination. Save $400 on stays of six nights or longer or save $250 on stays of five nights at select properties in the Bahamas (there’s a long list of eligible hotels on the tourism board’s Web site). To get this deal, you must book an air-inclusive package through the Bahamas Tourism Board.
The Catch: Sorry, spring breakers and summer vacationers. This offer is valid for travel from January 1 through March 14 and April 15 through June 20 — so choice spring break and summer vacation travel dates are not covered in this sale.
The Competition: The Bahama Out Islands Promotion Board is offering discounts for travelers heading to what it calls “the real Bahamas,” the less-traveled Bahamian atolls outside of New Providence and Grand Bahama Island. Receive up to two free plane tickets with purchase of an air-inclusive package to participating local resorts on islands like Andros, Cat Island and Eleuthera. Keep in mind that the Bahamas Tourism Board deal detailed above is also valid for stays at some hotels in Out Islands, so check out both deals before booking your Bahamas trip.
Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Vacation Deals.
– written by Caroline Costello