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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Check out the best travel content you might have missed this week.

tour guide and group


How to Be the Kind of Tourist Tour Guides Love
This Washington Post story by a tour guide in Paris offers practical advice every traveler should know before joining a group tour. (Example: “Don’t distract your guide when she is doing something tricky, like negotiating a busy traffic intersection on a bicycle tour, or setting up safety lines during a rappelling excursion. Your safety may depend on her concentration.”)

Planning the Spontaneous
In an essay for Travel Weekly, legendary travel writer Paul Theroux reveals how he prepares for his trips, including how he chooses destinations, what he reads before he goes and how he answers the “occupation” question on visa applications. (Also worth a read: Theroux’s interview with Travel Weekly about his recent trip to the Deep South.)

Why Your Next Hotel Will Be Staffed by Robots
CNN reports on the growing trend of automation in the travel industry, from robots checking people into hotels to automated bartenders on Royal Caribbean cruise ships. The story explores how far the technology might go; could tour guides be replaced by machines? While we’re all for efficiency, we hope travel never loses its personal touch.

Why Is Traveling Alone Still Considered a Risky, Frivolous Pursuit for Women?
This provocative essay in the Guardian was sparked by the deaths of two young Argentinian women who were murdered during a backpacking trip in Ecuador. The writer questions why many people’s response to the tragedy was to ask why the women were traveling “alone” and examines the double standards that women travelers face.

This New Blended Cabin Could Introduce the World’s First Lay-Flat Premium Economy Seat
For those of us who can’t afford to fly in first or business class, this creative premium economy cabin design could put lay-flat seats within reach on long flights. Skift examines the proposal from a company called Formation Design, which would blend business-class private suites with premium economy lay-flat seats in the same cabin.

After Brussels, Why Travel Is More Important Than Ever
The Editor-in-Chief of Travel + Leisure offers a compelling argument for why we should continue to travel in the face of ongoing terrorist attacks: “Travel fosters human understanding, and empathy for people whose lives are unlike your own. … Travelers are, ultimately, the enemies of terrorists, and what they believe works against terrorists’ aims, person by person and little by little.”

Starwood Signs First U.S.-Cuba Hotel Deal Since 1959 Revolution
The Cuba news keeps on coming. Reuters reports that Starwood is the first U.S. hotel chain to sign a deal with Cuba since the 1959 revolution; the chain will manage two Havana hotels, with a third likely on the way.

Warning: This week’s video might make you cry. It’s from Expedia, which is using virtual reality technology to bring the world to kids at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who are too sick to travel.


Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo
When Do You Need a Tour Guide?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: Carnival Corporation has announced that Fathom will cease operations in May 2017. However, passengers visiting Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic on any other Carnival ship will be able to take part in the impact activities first developed for Fathom.

If you’re looking for a vacation that goes beyond lying on a beach or seeing an area’s most famous sights, a trip with a new cruise line dedicated to voluntourism might be right for you.

Fathom, owned by Carnival Corporation, is dedicated to “impact travel” — with activities designed to connect travelers with local communities where they can make a difference. For example, you might spend a day teaching English, crafting clay water filters or working in a women’s chocolate cooperative. The Fathom team works with established local NGOs to identify areas of need and figure out how travelers can contribute in a way that will build projects that eventually are self-sustaining.

rolling paper at repapel dominican republic


I recently had the chance to try out some of these activities on a trip to the Dominican Republic hosted by Fathom. My first stop was RePapel, where about a dozen women work together to produce recycled paper that they then turn into business cards, postcards and other sellable products. Recycling is not yet common in the Dominican Republic, so in addition to providing stable jobs for local women, RePapel is part of a broader initiative to raise awareness of environmental issues. Fathom volunteers help in several stages of the recycling process, including tearing the source paper into strips (white paper must be separated from paper with any type of ink on it), mixing the pulp with water and rolling new sheets flat.

Another day I helped distribute clay water filters to families in a rural village that does not currently have reliable and safe drinking water. My last activity of the trip was teaching basic English phrases (“Hello. How are you? I’m good!”) to adults. Each excursion gave us a chance to interact with the local people, though those of us who spoke at least conversational Spanish had more meaningful exchanges. (Interpreters are always available, but they can’t attend to the entire group at all times.)

I discovered that it’s essential to be realistic about your motives for taking a voluntourism trip and the individual impact you are likely to have. No single traveler will be able to swoop in and make a massive difference in a local community in just a few days, and you might feel that no sooner have you learned a new skill than it’s time to leave. Also, not every moment of each Fathom activity is dedicated to direct impact; parts of the excursions are designed for learning and cultural exchange rather than strict volunteer work.

clay filters dominican republic fathom


My limited individual impact felt disappointing at times, but it’s useful to think of your personal experience as a small part of a bigger picture. Sure, maybe I only helped produce a few dozen sheets of paper during my time at RePapel, but Fathom’s initial investment in the project (and ongoing labor support in the form of travelers like me) allowed the workshop to get off the ground in the first place — and will hopefully enable it to develop to a point where it won’t need Fathom at all anymore.

Fathom’s ship, Adonia, carries 704 passengers and will debut April 10 with three weeklong sailings from Miami to the Dominican Republic, followed by a cruise from Miami to Cuba on May 1. The ship will then alternate between the two countries from week to week.

In the Dominican Republic, you can do as much or as little volunteer work as you want — so you could combine a morning harvesting coffee beans with an afternoon relaxing on the ship or going ziplining.

Because of the governmental restrictions on what Americans can do when they visit Cuba, Fathom’s itinerary there will be more regimented and have a greater focus on learning and cultural exchange than on volunteering.

Fathom cruises to the Dominican Republic start at $974 per person, while Cuba itineraries start at $1,800.

Would you consider a Fathom cruise?

20 Ways to Blend In with the Locals
9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English
Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How

— written by Sarah Schlichter

cuban flag trinidad cubaFor Americans, taking a trip to Cuba got a little easier on Tuesday, when the U.S. and Cuban governments agreed to reinstate commercial air travel between the two countries for the first time in more than a half-century. Yahoo! News reports that up to 110 daily flights will be permitted between the U.S. and 10 different airports in Cuba, with 20 of those going to Havana. Before this agreement Americans could only fly to Cuba from the U.S. aboard charter flights or by connecting in another country such as Canada or Mexico.

The new flights aren’t available just yet, but odds are that your favorite airline is interested in offering them. According to USA Today, most of the major U.S. airlines have expressed their intent to apply for flights to Cuba, including American, Delta, United, JetBlue and Spirit. Southwest and Alaska are considering putting in bids as well.

Per Yahoo! News, the airlines have about two weeks to submit their applications, and we should find out which flights will be available within about six months.

Americans should keep in mind that visits to Cuba for simple “touristic” purposes are still not permitted — so if you’re dreaming of wandering freely around Havana or lying on a beach in Varadero, tap the brakes. Even after commercial flights are in place, you’ll still need to verify that you are traveling to Cuba for one of the 12 purposes permitted by the U.S. government, including “educational activities” and “support for the Cuban people.” (You can find the full list at Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How.)

For now, the easiest way to visit Cuba is still to travel with a group such as Intrepid Travel, smarTours, Insight Cuba or Cuba Explorer, all of which offer government-compliant itineraries and will arrange charter flights for you.

Havana Travel Guide
A Walking Tour of Old Havana
People to People: Why You Might NOT Want to Visit Cuba Independently

— 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

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

Maybe you’re sick of summer’s heat and humidity. Or maybe you’re blissfully reading this from an iPad on the beach. But whether you love it or hate it, summer’s days are numbered — and that means it’s just about time to look ahead to fall.

Where will you travel in the coming months? Here are four fall trips to consider, depending on your interests.

lake district autumn


Looking for leaf-peeping? Consider a jaunt across the pond to England‘s Lake District, whose forested hills come alive with color in the autumn months. There are plenty of places for a stroll in and around Lake District National Park.

lighthouse prince edward island


In need of a little relaxation? Combine lobster, lighthouses and laid-back charm on a road trip around Prince Edward Island, Canada. Famous as the setting for the “Anne of Green Gables” novels and miniseries, the island’s rolling farms and red sandy beaches are the perfect place to unwind and enjoy the simple beauty of the landscape.

grand knip beach curacao


Not ready to let go of summer? Head down to Curacao, known for its pastel-colored capital and peaceful white sand beaches. As one of the ABC islands (along with Aruba and Bonaire), Curacao is far enough south to miss most of the hurricanes that plague other Caribbean islands this time of year.

Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

oryx namaqualand south africa


Want to watch wildlife? Journey to South Africa for a taste of spring south of the equator. South Africa made it into our list of 12 Places That Shine in Shoulder Season for several key reasons: Safaris are often a little cheaper this time of year, temperatures are a little more comfortable and wildlife watchers can partake in an annual Whale Festival in Hermanus.

Photos: 10 Best South Africa Experiences

Where are you headed this fall?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

horseshoe bay bermuda


Population: 70,000

Currency: Bermudian dollar

Phrase to Know: Chingas! (Wow!)

Fun Fact: Visitors aren’t allowed to rent a car in Bermuda (both to prevent congestion and to keep everyone safe on the island’s narrow roads). Instead, you can rent a scooter or moped, take a taxi, or hop on a public bus.

We Recommend: Go underground into one of Bermuda’s many caves — including Crystal Cave, Fantasy Cave and Admiral’s Cave.

10 Best Bermuda Experiences

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

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Yesterday was International Kissing Day, which got us thinking about some of the world’s most romantic and pucker-producing places. Check out the list of our top picks below — and let us know your additions in the comments!

couple eiffel tower paris romantic


Paris, France: This one’s a given. Whether you’re strolling hand-in-hand down the Champs Elysees, cuddling up at night to watch the Eiffel Tower’s twinkling lights or staring into each other’s eyes over lunch and macarons at a hole-in-the-wall cafe, Paris practically screams smoochworthiness.

Samana, Dominican Republic: An off-season trip to a resort in this cheerful town in the DR can be a great experience, particularly because the crowds are thinner (or, in some places, virtually nonexistent). That means you’ll be able to snag more alone time with the one who matters most. Sleep in, find a secluded beach or watch whales breach from your private balcony — which, by the way, is a great place to pucker up.

Living Like a Local in Samana, Dominican Republic

New York, New York: Ironically, there’s nothing quite like the hustle and bustle of the city that never sleeps to make you and your significant other feel like you’re the only two people in the universe. Jog through Manhattan’s Central Park, experience the craft beer scene in Brooklyn or meander down lesser-known side streets to find a divey pizza joint you can call your own.

bora bora tahiti french polynesia couple romantic


Bora Bora, French Polynesia: Imagine waking up next to your sweetie in your very own hut in the middle of crystal-clear turquoise waters. Even if thatched roofs, colorful fish and open-air sleeping arrangements aren’t your thing, we’re sure the relative seclusion won’t hurt your chances of snagging a peck … or 50.

10 Best French Polynesia Experiences

Venice, Italy: How can you resist a kiss in a city full of historical palaces, playful Carnevale masks and romantic gondola rides along peaceful, winding canals? Have dinner canal-side, and just try to stave off the feeling of la dolce vita that’s sure to follow.

Savannah, Georgia: As if unique shops, restaurants full of atmosphere and stunning architecture aren’t enough, Savannah has a colorful history that includes plenty of rumored ghosts and spirits. Sign up for a nighttime ghost walk, which will force you to keep your loved one close. Then prepare to plant one on him (or her) — or have one planted on you.

cologne love lock bridge


Cologne, Germany: We dare you to find a holiday (Valentine’s Day excluded) that sparks more warm, fuzzy feelings than Christmas. The perfect way to spend some holiday time with your snookums is at one of Germany’s many Christmas markets — and Cologne’s is one of the biggest and best. When you’re done snogging between sips of gluhwein and bites of gingerbread, you can venture to the city’s well-known love lock bridge to further profess your feelings.

Datong, China: Supported by stilts on the side of a mountain, the Hengshan Hanging Temple appears to be “hanging” — hence its name. Explore the roughly 40 rooms that make up this impressive monastery, which dates back more than 1,400 years. The remarkable warren of passageways is great to experience with your partner, especially so you have someone’s hand to hold if you’re afraid of heights! (Note: Out of respect you may want to hold off on locking lips until you’ve left the monastery.)

12 Spots to Fall in Love with Travel

Which destination is your favorite for puckering up?

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

singers cuba el tanqueRecent changes from President Obama mean that it’s gotten significantly easier for Americans to visit Cuba, but they must still travel under one of 12 categories mandated by the U.S. government. A research trip or a visit to see family? No problem. A beach vacation or simple sightseeing? Those are a no-go. (For the full list of legal categories, see Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How.)

For those of us who aren’t journalists, professors or baseball players starring in an exhibition game, the easiest way to get to Cuba is with a company operating “people-to-people” tours, which fall under the umbrella of Educational Activities as far as the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is concerned. These trips focus on cultural exchange by putting American visitors directly in contact with the Cubans themselves — often in ways that would be difficult or even impossible to arrange on your own.

I recently traveled on such an itinerary with smarTours, which arranged numerous people-to-people activities during our four days in Havana. One highlight was a visit to El Tanque, where an abandoned water tank that used to service steam trains has been transformed into a bustling community center where neighborhood kids can learn painting, music, ceramics, dancing, theater and filmmaking. Several of the instructors gave us an impromptu musical performance before answering questions about the project, giving us insight into how economically challenged neighborhoods in Havana are supporting themselves from within.

5 Things You Need to Know About Traveling to Cuba Now

cuba photographer artist lorenzo lopez sheningThe interactive experiences continued throughout the trip. We ate lunch one day with a local magazine writer, the next with a retired pitcher who’d played for various Cuban baseball teams. We were treated to a private concert by Ele, a dynamic singing group, as well as a performance by incredibly talented children who were studying acrobatics and other circus skills as part of an after-school program called Angels of the Future. (One child swung from the ceiling; another contorted herself into painful-looking poses; still another stood barefoot on his friend’s head!) On our last day in Cuba, we were welcomed into the home of a local artist/photographer, who generously spent an hour answering our group’s questions about his life, his work and the future of Cuba.

While I loved strolling the streets of Old Havana and watching the Buena Vista Social Club perform at our hotel — activities I could’ve done easily on an independent trip — it was the people-to-people aspects of the itinerary that proved to be the most informative and rewarding. At this pivotal point in Cuban history, it was important to hear the voices of the people themselves, expressing their hopes and fears about what’s ahead. (“After the embargo” was a phrase we heard over and over again.)

Yes, group trips have their drawbacks, especially if you love wandering and prefer your schedule to be your own. And I support the right of all American travelers to visit Cuba independently when it’s legal to do so. But I hope that even after all the restrictions are gone, there will still be companies offering people-to-people itineraries in Cuba — because there are few better ways to understand and appreciate this unique culture.

Read About Other Travelers’ Experiences in Cuba

— written by Sarah Schlichter