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venice gondola A few years ago, I considered my first solo trip (to Austria). Though I’d flown to Europe alone several times in the past, I’d always met familiar faces at the airport. This time around, I knew I’d want a similar kind of security — and that’s when I discovered Monograms through a travel agent.

Monograms — which operates in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia/New Zealand — helps travelers spend less time on trip planning by organizing hotels, airport and city transfers, and suggested itineraries. It also provides insight and help from trusted locals, should you want it. But as a traveler, you’re supposed to feel as though you’re on your own — not on a tour group vacation — the whole time.

I never took that trip to Austria, so when I recently received an opportunity to experience a Monograms vacation package — this time in Italy (the company’s most popular destination) — I happily accepted the offer. Read on to see what I loved about the trip, as well as didn’t work quite as well.

HITS
Convenience: Monograms packages include accommodations and complimentary breakfast at a centrally located hotel; a Local Host, who essentially acts as your personal concierge; organized sightseeing opportunities; and transfers between cities. Airport transfers are also included if you book your flight via Monograms. Shortly before the trip, visitors also receive an information packet with a (loose) itinerary and useful tips about the destination, such as electrical outlet guidelines, customary tipping procedures, emergency phone numbers and a weather forecast.

9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English

Independence: As mentioned, select sightseeing opportunities are included in Monograms packages (though they’re certainly not mandatory), and are typically offered in half-day sessions. This allows plenty of free time to go it alone; in fact, you’ll feel like you’re on your own most of the time. Other excursions (like a gondola ride in Venice, for example) are available for an additional fee.

Local Insight: The most valuable feature of Monograms is the Local Hosts. While they can handle trip logistics and answer questions, they’re also a great resource for recommendations and inside tips. For instance, our Local Host, Igor, directed us to the best place to beat the crowds and view Venice’s Rialto Bridge (Campiello del Remer). Upon request, he also gave us a few history lessons via a spooky tour of the city at night. Local Hosts are helpful from a safety perspective as well — if you get in a bind, they’re just a phone call away.

Special Privileges: By traveling with Monograms, you can skip lines at attractions included in sightseeing tours. For example, I was allowed immediate access to St. Mark’s Basilica, Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Museo del Vetro (Murano Glass Museum) in Venice. Since the lines for these landmarks can get excruciatingly long, especially during the summer months, this is a welcome perk.

MISSES
Group Sizes: Monograms doesn’t really limit the number of people who book vacation packages at one time, and some travel dates are just more popular than others. In this case, Monograms might split a group for sightseeing tours, but in the event it doesn’t, you’ll likely be walking around in a giant group like other tourists, headset in ear and all.

Tourist Trap-Heavy: To that effect, most of the sightseeing options included in Monograms itineraries are popular attractions, a k a tourist traps. While some are certainly worth the visit (I’m not sure who’d pass up a tour of the Eiffel Tower), many travelers might prefer to bypass the big names and spend their money on an entirely off-the-beaten-path getaway.

Tourist No More: 3 Secrets for Traveling like a Local

By the way, I still plan to visit Austria, and when I do, it’ll more than likely be with Monograms.

– written by Amanda Geronikos

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 delicious light bites.

Would you rather…

… nibble on fresh spring rolls in Vietnam, or …

spring rolls vietnam



… nosh on tapas in Spain?

spanish tapas spain


Wrapped in delicate rice paper and stuffed with a tasty mix of lettuce, cucumber, carrot, daikon and either pork or shrimp, spring rolls are a must-try when visiting Vietnam or other Southeast Asian countries. Meanwhile, tapas encompass a range of bite-size appetizers or snacks in Spain, ranging from fried squid to cured cheese topped with anchovies.

12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies
Beyond Restaurants: 8 Ways to Savor a Local Food Scene

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

dining soloSolo travel can be reflective, rewarding and exhilarating, but it also presents challenges. For some, eating alone is an experience that takes getting used to. (See Terror at the Table for One.)

Luckily, the times may be changing for solo diners. At Eenmaal, a restaurant in Amsterdam, you can feel secure in asking for a table of one because that’s all that’s available; you and your fellow diners all are eating alone, together.

Hailed as the first one-person restaurant in the world, Eenmaal (which means “one time” as well as “one meal” in Dutch) describes itself as “an attractive place for temporary disconnection.” The solo eatery takes its form as a pop-up restaurant, only open during select times in select locations, and it’s far from depressing — it’s always sold out, according to its website.

Marina van Goor, the social designer and mastermind behind Eenmaal, sought to create the restaurant as a social experiment to confront the concept of loneliness in the Internet Age. The idea has not only gained widespread media attention but has led to a rash of emerging pop-up eateries for one worldwide.

Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo

The idea already exists in Japan, where space is limited but ideas for unique eateries are plenty. Take this restaurant where you can dine (alone?) with stuffed animals, for example.

As for myself, I generally forgo the fluff and face the plate without any companionship — teddy bear included — although I admit the urge to check my phone might reach an uncomfortable level. The one time I decided to go to a local brunch spot by myself, I came equipped with a book, a notebook, a pen and plenty of ways to look busy — and I wasn’t even abroad! However, I ended up enjoying my pot of tea without needing further distraction. In a world filled with constant stimulation, I found that to be an accomplishment.

Take a Bite Out of Solo Dining

Now that solo dining is “in,” we want to know: Is it still awkward? Have you dined independently, or would you try it? Share in the comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

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 experiences that will have you “seeing red.”

Would you rather…

… explore the Forbidden City in Beijing

forbidden city beijing



… stroll through the Netherlands during tulip season?

tulips windmill netherlands


As we write in our Beijing travel guide, the Forbidden City lies just beyond Tiananmen Square, and is a “sprawling, walled encampment [that] once housed the Imperial Court during the Ming and Qing dynasties … It’s so huge that many erstwhile residents are said to have gone their whole lives without leaving the 30-foot high walls of the city.” The Netherlands is famous for its colorful tulip season, which runs throughout April and May in various parts of the country. The gardens of Keukenhof are one of the best places to take in the display.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– 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 places to see colorful spring flowers.

Would you rather…

… explore Japan during cherry blossom season, or …

japan himeji castle cherry blossoms sakura



… see spring blooms in the Swiss Alps?

switzerland swiss alps flowers spring


Japan is famous for its sakura, or cherry blossoms, which flower at various times between March and May (depending on which region of the country you’re visiting). In the mountains of Switzerland, striking alpine flowers add color to meadows and hillsides throughout the spring and summer.

Photos: 12 Best Japan Experiences
12 Places That Shine in Shoulder Season

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– 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 experiences on the water.

Would you rather…

… stay in an overwater bungalow in the Maldives, or …

overwater bungalow maldives



… explore the Mediterranean coast from a private yacht?

yacht mallorca spain


Think “overwater bungalows” and you probably think of French Polynesia, but the remote Maldives Islands also have their share of these luxe accommodations, hovering over the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. In between diving and swimming, you can visit traditional villages and even join the locals on a night fishing excursion before retreating back to your bungalow. If sailing along the Mediterranean coast is more your speed, you can charter a yacht through companies such as AquaCruise, Sunsail or Yachting Partners International. Potential destinations include Spain, France, Greece, Croatia, Italy and more.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

There’s something about train travel that just feels romantic. You’re not behind the wheel; you’re not in a middle seat at high altitude; you’re simply coasting along with an oftentimes sweeping view. This form of travel lends itself well to getting lost in thought, so why not use it to do something memorable? Here are three ways to turn your next rendezvous with the rails into more than just an ordinary journey.

Write the Next Great American Novel
girl, train, thinking

Have you ever wished for a prestigious writer’s residency? Well, how about one onboard a train? The #AmtrakResidency program, sponsored by Amtrak, is calling all writers to submit their applications for a multi-day writing residency aboard one of the railroad’s domestic trains. Free of charge, the program is in part marketing for the train line, but it’s also a fantastic chance to use our nation’s passing landscapes to inspire poems, prose or even tweets. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis through March 2015. According to the site, “A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.”

Travel Back to the ’20s with National Geographic
train, spain, El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo is a private train with original British Pullman cars refurbished from the 1920s. Serving the northern coast of Spain, the line is frequently chartered by National Geographic for rail journeys through the scenic region. Your expedition includes the tips of a professional photographer and a special excursion through the wine region with a one-night stay at Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos, which claims to be the oldest hotel in the world. Suites onboard the train include a queen bed, living room, large windows, private bathroom with a shower, hydro sauna, and steam bath. Watch Basque country pass by your window as you chat with onboard National Geographic experts.

Relive a Wes Anderson Film in India
train, india, darjeeling, himalayan, railway

Director Wes Anderson’s newest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” features many scenes onboard a train in a fictional faux-European region called the Republic of Zubrowka. But another one of his films, “The Darjeeling Limited,” was inspired by a very real train line: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Train travel in India is a microcosm of the whole country: crowded, chaotic, unpredictable, impressive and a feast for the senses. The railway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the beauty of the countryside is just as apparent on screen, during sibling spats, and off. Whether you’re three brothers on a cinematic journey for closure, or just along for the ride, this train trip is bound to bring a plot twist.

Slideshow: The World’s Most Spectacular Train Trips

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo photo used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Simon Pielow.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

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!

lubeck germanyIn this month’s featured review, reader Lyn Hargreave describes a journey in which she aimed to experience Germany “as a traveler, not a tourist.”

She accomplished that through a cultural exchange organization called Friendship Force International: “Every night, we were treated to dinner in different homes, as we were previously during our stay near Hamburg. Our hosts planned and showed us what we asked to see. So easy! No cars to rent, no train schedules to hassle with. The hospitality of new friends through Friendship Force International made this a warm and very personal experience. We now look forward to welcoming these new friends to our homes next year.”

Read the rest of Lyn’s review here: Germany Up Close and Personal. Lyn has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– 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 holidays being celebrated today, March 17.

Would you rather…

… join the St. Patrick’s Day revelry in Ireland, or …

st patrick's day parade cork ireland



… throw brightly colored powder to celebrate Holi in India?

holi festival india


St. Patrick’s Day, which honors the patron saint of Ireland, is celebrated with parades, green clothing and the odd drink or two by the Irish diaspora around the world. Holi is a Hindu festival that honors the coming of spring with frolicking and the flinging of colorful powder; it’s observed primarily in India and other South Asian nations.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– 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 “true blue” experiences.

Would you rather…

… explore the historic medina of Chefchaouen, Morocco, or …

chefchaouen morocco medina blue



… bathe in the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, Iceland?

blue lagoon reykjavik


The mountain village of Chefchaouen, in northeastern Morocco, is famous for its picture-perfect blue architecture. Meanwhile, the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, fed with hot mineral water from beneath the earth’s surface, is one of Iceland’s most famous attractions.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter