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supermarket aislesNext year I’m going to Liverpool, England, for a friend’s wedding. My husband and I plan on staying five or six days with my friend and then venturing out for three to six days. Though I’ve been to London, I’ve never ventured outside the British capital.

Inspiration for trip ideas has been easy to come by. While looking for a few really cool experiences in the Liverpool area, I checked out IndependentTraveler.com’s 13 Best England Experiences and have already added the Magical Mystery Tour to our list of things to do.

But I need more than just ideas for things to do and places to see. I need to figure out how to plan my trip as inexpensively as possible.

So how am I preparing?

I plan to consult a long list of resources, ranging from the official Liverpool and England tourism websites to asking various British friends. And, of course, I’m checking out the advice we’ve compiled here at IndependentTraveler.com. Between the various articles on money, packing, international travel and more, I’ve already started putting together a list of must-dos.

For instance, one of the best ways to save money on a trip to England, where their currency is stronger than ours, is to get the best exchange rate that I can. In Buying Foreign Currency: Get More Bang for Your Buck, Mark Rowlands, sales director at currency provider Covent Garden FX, advises shopping around before leaving home. Additionally, he says to prepare ahead of time by checking the money market. I shouldn’t trust suppliers to tell me what the current rates are; instead, I should pre-check them myself with a website like XE.com.

“You can’t buy from a wholesaler, but knowledge is power. If your supplier is adding 5 percent — which is not unusual — walk away.”

Travel Budget Calculator

Furthermore, once I’m in England and need more currency I know to stick as much as possible with credit cards and ATM withdrawals, thanks to Get the Best Exchange Rate.

Another area we might be able to save money is transportation. Do we rent a car or do we stick to mass transit?

If we rent a car, Traveler’s Ed author Ed Hewitt recommends looking at smaller rental car players, like Europcar, and not just sticking to the big names. In Car Rental Secrets We Bet You Don’t Know, he also advises using an aggregator like Priceline to find the best price:

“As I have written numerous times in different contexts over the past 15 years, the best place to get a great rental car price is Priceline. It posts prices for the majority of rental car companies.”

On the other hand, if we stick with mass transit, we’ll have to hit the rails, at the very least to get from wherever we land (Manchester, hopefully) to Liverpool and back again. According to Getting Around England: Flights, Trains and More, we’ll need to check out Virgin Trains, which offers a range of inter-city routes, like London or Manchester to Liverpool.

Customizable Packing List

If you’ve got any suggestions for me, please stop by my Liverpool and Surrounding Areas thread on the IndependentTraveler.com’s members’ forum.

– written by Dori Saltzman

naples italy Along with our slideshow of the 11 Best Italy Experiences, this post is part of an ongoing effort to help independent travelers make unique memories in both popular and undiscovered destinations around the world.

For Italian politicians, Naples sometimes seems like a problem that’s best left alone. It’s a tangled ball of social inequalities — a wriggling can of economic worms that, once opened, threatens to squirm out, all over one’s pristine Armani chinos.

For travelers, as well, Naples can seem like a place that’s better avoided than engaged with. Even we’re guilty of it. On IndependentTraveler.com’s recent roundup of 11 Unforgettable Italy Experiences, Naples lost out to neighbouring Sorrento, which offers a small slice of southern Italy without the bad attitude that Naples has (perhaps unfairly) become associated with.

But sometimes the most rewarding relationships are the ones that require the most work — and with this in mind, my travel companion and I set off for the south.

We boarded the high-speed train from Rome to Naples and sat down across from a surly-looking rail worker in mucky orange overalls who pretended to be asleep for most of the journey. We had plenty of time, while watching little terra cotta villages and impossible-to-reach green mountains fly past the window, to think about everything we knew about Naples.

Our guidebook was hysterical. Everyone we met in Naples, we were advised, was out to rob or shoot us. We should treat anyone approaching us as either a “hood” or a “swindler.” I think our guidebook had been written by a 1950′s cardsharp. I pictured him sweating in his zoot suit at the very thought of the mean Neapolitan streets, battering away at a typewriter in a dimly lit tenement building, waiting for the call from Bugsy.

Unfortunately, this seems to be where many people’s perceptions of Naples are stuck. But what else did I know about Naples?

It’s the third largest city in Italy — after Rome and Milan. It is also one of the poorest places in Europe, with an unemployment rate of almost 11 percent. Its Italian name, Napoli, is derived from the Latin Neapolis, meaning “New City.” Its historic city center, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, has long been renowned for its beauty, with generations of poets and artists coming from all over the world for inspiration. It also has an enduring and unfortunate association with organized crime.

Money Safety Tips for Travelers

One of my brother’s friends claims that upon visiting Naples for the first time, he witnessed a fatal shooting before he’d even left the train station.

This kind of thing has shaped Naples’ reputation — a reputation that gives visitors a kind of thrill. Naples has a sheen of danger that reassures travelers that here they are experiencing something real, something that hasn’t been laid on for them by the tourist board.

So what was Naples actually like?

The first thing we noticed was not the danger but the heat. Naples is definitely hotter than other major Italian cities like Rome. The streets seemed more humid, and despite the sun, there were fewer people wearing sunglasses. Everything, even the escalators, seemed to move at a slightly different pace.

We enjoyed the ramshackle mix of architecture and the blue sea in the bay. It is often said that Rome is Italy’s heart and that Naples is its soul. I can’t say whether you should be frightened of Naples or not, but I do know that you should visit it if you can. Keep an eye out, of course — as you would anywhere — but don’t go expecting trouble.

Trip Review: Naples

The guy in the orange overalls that had been sharing our table got his things together in a rucksack and made his way off the train into the crowded streets. He looked as though he was on his way home, along with the hundreds of other people who had made the hourlong commute from Rome. The city is eminently accessible — there really is no reason to be put off visiting.

Naples has a charm of its own, completely separate from that of bustling Rome and cosmopolitan Milan. Despite its distinct character, and despite what our guidebook may have had us believe, Naples is not so alien as to be impossible to negotiate. It is not, as it may sometimes feel when reading about it, a whole world apart.

For more trip ideas, see our 11 Best Italy Experiences.

– written by Josh Thomas

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.

This week’s shot was taken in Strasbourg, France.

strasbourg france


Photos: 12 Unforgettable France Experiences

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Our Favorite Hotels in Paris

– written by Sarah Schlichter

hemingway home catHi, my name is Ashley, and I’m a crazy cat lady.

Okay, I like to think I’m not too crazy, but I did adopt a fifth cat last weekend. Of course, I still love to travel, so I got to wondering where my fellow crazy cat ladies and I might go on vacation if we wanted to indulge our passion. Assuming we’re not seeking a fur-free escape, here’s a small list of possibilities.

De Poezenboot (The Cat Boat), Amsterdam, Netherlands
Located along the Singel Canal, this floating cat sanctuary is home to up to 50 cats at any given time. Started by Henriette van Weelde in 1966 when she took a family of stray cats into her residence, De Poezenboot quickly expanded to a barge and then a house boat as the number of cats in need of homes continued to grow. You can stop in to see the kitties, make donations and buy souvenir T-shirts from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. daily, except Sundays and Wednesdays, at Singel 38 G.

Our Favorite Hotels in Amsterdam

Tashirojima Island (Cat Island), Ishinomaki, Miyagi, Japan
Years ago, when silk production was at its peak there, the island’s inhabitants used cats to keep the mouse population to a minimum. (Mice are a threat to silkworms.) Stray cats now outnumber the island’s 100 residents. You can access the island via ferry from Ishinomaki City.

Hemingway Home, Key West, Florida, United States
This one will appeal to crazy cat ladies and literature buffs alike. Home to the late author Ernest Hemingway, this historic building — also a museum — has between 40 and 50 cats in residence. All of the felines are polydactyls (or carry the polydactyl gene), which means many have paws with what appear to be tiny, furry thumbs. It’s said that many of these cats are descendents of Hemingway’s original pet cat, Snowball, who was also a polydactyl. Tours of the house are available every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 907 Whitehead Street.

Learn More About Key West

The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas, United States
A landmark that housed missionaries in the 1700′s, the Alamo is most famous for its role in the Texas Revolution. Resident cats have roamed the area before, but perhaps the most famous is the Alamo’s current feline, Clara Carmack or C.C. (named after Clara Driscoll and Mary Carmack, who played important roles in the building’s preservation). Visit for a dose of history and a possible C.C. sighting every day, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at 300 Alamo Plaza. (Read about one IndependentTraveler.com reader’s quest to see C.C. the Alamo Cat!)

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

pompeiiAlong with our slideshow of the 11 Best Italy Experiences, this post is part of an ongoing effort to help independent travelers make unique memories in both popular and undiscovered destinations around the world.

I’d heard a lot about Pompeii before I went there. Some people called it a tourist trap. One of my colleagues actively avoided it on a hiking trip to Vesuvius. And, of course, I’d read about the plaster cast corpses that supposedly littered the city’s pavements like garbage bags on collection day.

I worried that the casts would be everywhere, as I’d seen on TV, still taking up the spaces that they’d claimed more than a thousand years ago. I wasn’t sure I was ready to meet any of them just yet. Pompeii was, however, just one of those places I felt I had to visit. To be in that part of Italy and ignore it would have been awkward.

As my companion and I inched closer to the ticket office in the sweltering heat, I kept looking at something gray and huddled that lay farther up the dusty road. It was quite a long way away, but I could see the crowds parting around it like water.

We paid for our tickets and began the walk up to the city’s walls. The thing lay right in the gateway to the city, humped over in defeat as though it had just failed to escape the ashy labyrinth that Pompeii’s streets must have become upon its destruction.

The thing was, in fact, a traffic bump.

And that was the closest I came to seeing a petrified corpse in Pompeii. TV had misrepresented the place. The ruins, the faded murals, the mosaics and the quietly lurking mountains were all very obvious. TV hadn’t lied about those. Vesuvius was there, looking kind of guilty and shy, but we saw no evidence of the casts. Instead of being scattered all over the city, they were all gathered in one place — somewhere that we, without a map, couldn’t find and, in the heat, weren’t inclined to investigate further.

Our favorite Hotels in Rome

I wondered what else I didn’t know. I looked at the small, terraced houses and wondered what it might have been like to live here. I thought about the heat, which was intense, and the sun, from which there was very little shelter. The whole city seemed to be raised up, and the surrounding mountains formed a ring under the blue sky, like we were under a huge magnifying lens.

Then I saw a lizard.

lizard pompeiiPompeii, it seems, is absolutely filled with small, vivid green, furtive-looking lizards. They lie around in the sun on someone’s old front steps, climb in and out of cracks in the crumbly walls, and run away when you try to take their picture.

I wondered whether the lizards would have been there when Pompeii was a thriving city. The climate hasn’t changed drastically since then, and neither has the terrain, so I imagine that they would have been. For some reason, this made me think about Pompeii in a very different way.

I imagined Pompeiian bakers opening their shops in the mornings and chasing the lizards out of their shops with brooms, or Pompeiian theater goers delicately shooing them out of their booths. I imagined Pompeiian people sitting, just as we were, with nothing much to do, simply watching the lizards lying out in the sun.

I wondered whether any of the lizards had been caught out in the blast and turned into little, lizard-shaped paperweights.

Like any city, Pompeii has parts that are popular with visitors, as well as quiet parts, surprising parts and parts that you wouldn’t expect. We didn’t see any of the famous casts, it’s true. But meeting the lizards made us feel a little closer to the people that must have once lived in Pompeii. They might have been a little part of normal people’s everyday lives — a part that’s, perhaps, too small for most people to consider.

For more ways to see Italy’s most popular destinations from a fresh perspective, check out our 11 Best Italy Experiences.

– written by Josh Thomas

Earlier this week, we offered our picks for the 13 Best England Experiences, including activities like learning to paint in the Lake District and sleeping in a New Forest yurt. While all of those experiences are truly unique and memorable, we also thought it would be fun to find a few off-the-wall activities to check out in England. Below are three bizarre events happening this summer or fall that just might be worth adding to your England itinerary.

Gravy Train
Why simply eat gravy when you can wrestle another human being in it? Locals will do just that later this month at the annual Gravy Wrestling competition in Rossendale, Lancashire, on August 26. Per the official Web site, “Contestants must wrestle in the gravy for two minutes whilst being scored for audience applause, and various different moves.” Well, at least it’s tastier than mud. Check out the video below to see samples of past performances.


Go Conkers
Most Yanks have no idea what the heck a conker is, much less that there’s such a thing as the World Conker Championships — so allow us to enlighten you. More commonly known in the U.S. as buckeyes, conkers are the fruits of the horse chestnut tree. The game of conkers is popular with British schoolchildren, and involves boring a hole in the conker to tie a string through it, and then swinging it from the end of the string against another person’s conker until one of them is destroyed. Sounds like high drama, no? You can catch the action at the World Conker Championships on October 13, 2013, in the town of Southwick — or just view highlights from a past competition below.



Pants on Fire
Back in school, were you the kid who vexed your teachers with increasingly creative excuses for not doing your homework? If so, you might be a good candidate to enter the World’s Biggest Liar competition, held each November at the Bridge Inn in Cumbria. The contest — part storytelling, part stand-up comedy — is a longstanding tribute to Will Ritson, a 19th-century publican who was famous for his tall tales (he once claimed that the locally grown turnips were so large they could be used as sheds for cows). This year’s fib-off will be held on November 21. According to VisitEngland.org, “Politicians and lawyers are reputedly barred from entering, as they are considered to ‘have an unfair advantage.’” To get the flavor, listen to this competitor from a previous year spin a yarn about trying to catch a nine-foot fish:





Photos: 13 Unforgettable England Experiences
7 Strange Foods from Around the World

– written by Sarah Schlichter

berlin wall graffitiIt took two trips for me to find the beauty in Berlin.

On my first visit, my husband and I made it our mission to see as many 20th-century historical sights as we could in our limited time in Germany‘s capital. We took a World War II walking tour, strolled along the graffiti-laden remnants of the Wall at the East Side Gallery, checked out Checkpoint Charlie and read every solemn panel at the Topography of Terror.

By the time we got to the Jewish Museum Berlin, one of the largest and most moving collections of its kind, we were wiped out. The city’s bleak past had crushed us with its enormity, to the point where I couldn’t wait to leave.

When a conference called me back to Berlin this year, I vowed to give the city another chance. While you can’t ignore the horrors of the Nazi and Cold War eras, Berlin has so much more to offer travelers, particularly those interested in art (and those on a limited budget; Berlin is a bargain among European capitals). Plus I had read that the city’s culinary reputation was on an upswing.

To save money, friends and I rented a two-bedroom apartment through Airbnb on the Ku’damm, the main boulevard of the former Western portion of the city. We knew the neighborhood of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf was upscale, but we didn’t realize how much until our taxi deposited us at a building opposite Gucci.

Although not as trendy as Berlin’s Kreuzberg or Prenzlauer Berg neighborhoods, Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf still offered plenty to do and see within walking distance. The city’s public transportation system is reliable and covers most of the city (the Berlin WelcomeCard makes getting around even easier), and most Berliners speak enough English for non-German-speakers to get by.

12 Best Germany Experiences

On this visit, I made it to Museum Island, the center of Berlin’s State Museums complex that’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of the five buildings in the middle of the Spree, I chose the Pergamon Museum, primarily so I could see the famous Pergamon Altar, an acropolis that dates back to the first half of the second century. While it was indeed impressive, I was more blown away by the Ishtar Gate, part of the ancient city of Babylon that’s been reassembled. As with any ancient treasure, it’s debatable whether it belongs in Berlin — the British Museum in London faces similar ethical issues — but for now, it’s the pinnacle of German archaeology.

After viewing ancient masterpieces, I went more modern with my next museum. Helmut Newton is one of Germany’s more famous — and notorious — photographers, and I remember his sexy photos of celebs like Madonna from the 1980′s. Many of his more ambitious works are permanently housed at the Helmut Newton Foundation, which also hosts regular exhibitions. (If you go, leave your Victorian sensibilities at the door; his photos can be explicit in nature.)

Our Favorite Hotels in Berlin

On my first Berlin visit, I tried — and disliked — currywurst, the city’s most popular street food (while others love the combination of curry and ketchup, it didn’t sit right with me). Berlin’s culinary reputation has grown in the subsequent years, however, and the city now has 13 restaurants with Michelin stars. While I didn’t have the budget or the wherewithal to make reservations at a place like Fischers Fritz, I did experience a better class of cuisine with a stop at KaDeWe, a department store food hall that rivals Harrod’s in London. We found plenty of delicacies — think cheeses, pates and Rieslings — to fill our apartment refrigerator.

Eager to prove that Berlin boasts international cuisine, a local friend took me to 3 Minutes Sur Mer, a French restaurant in the newly trendy Torstrasse district. On the menu were escargot, fish and other brasserie-style dishes that defied the German stereotype of heavy food. Between that and the emphasis that I saw on local and organic produce, Berlin seems to be shedding its stodgy reputation — good news for foodies.

12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies

I left Berlin with a lighter spirit and a better appreciation for the city’s comeback. A thriving tech scene means that the more young people from across the E.U. are setting up shop here — and I’m eager to go back and see how a vibrant 21st century uplifts a place that’s had more than its share of tragedy.

– written by Chris Gray Faust

Along with our slideshow of the 12 Best France Experiences, this post is part of an ongoing effort to help independent travelers make unique memories in both popular and undiscovered destinations around the world.

For those of us who love to eat, there are few better spots on Earth to visit than France. (Croissants, crepes, pain au chocolat, brie, quiche … need we say more?) And while Paris may be a natural place to start, I recently found my own foodie bliss in Rennes, the capital of Brittany.

I kicked off my day at France’s second-largest market, the Marche des Lices, which sets up shop every Saturday morning along Place des Lices in the historic center of Rennes. This colorful, multi-block sprawl of stalls is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the tongue, brimming with offerings from more than 300 regional food producers — mangos and melons, avocados and onions, shellfish and soft cheese, cider and salted butter. (The latter are both particular specialties of Brittany.) It feels as though everyone in Rennes shows up with basket in hand, chatting with vendors who reach out with tempting chunks of peaches or olives on toothpicks, hoping to lure a sale. The market is the perfect spot to pick up a few edible souvenirs of your trip to France, such as fleur de sel (hand-harvested sea salt) or a bottle of the region’s famous cider.

marches des lices rennes tomatoes


It’s practically illegal to leave Brittany without noshing on a crepe. They come in two types: sweet (made of wheat flour and stuffed with goodies like chocolate, fruit or whipped cream) and savory (known as gallettes and made of buckwheat flour). La Creperie Saint-Georges, located at 11 rue du Chapitre, has an extensive menu of both, with each dish named after a famous George — from designer Giorgio Armani to novelist George Sand. For lunch, I opted for the George Clooney, which was stuffed with goat cheese, spinach and tomato, and came with sides of salad and cucumber sorbet. Other options included the popular ham/cheese/egg combo, along with quirkier offerings like smoked salmon with potato and beets. Dessert crepes filled with chocolate and almonds proved impossible to resist.

crepe la creperie saint-georges


That evening, my travel companions and I gathered at Chateau d’Apigne — a 19th-century castle that’s been transformed into an eight-room luxury hotel — for a unique dining experience called “The French Way of Life.” Before sitting down for a multi-course dinner, we learned how to set the table in traditional French style under the guidance of Madame Joelle Ruault, a respected expert in table etiquette who’s shared her wisdom with luminaries at the French presidential palace. We donned white gloves (so we wouldn’t leave unsightly fingerprints on the wine glasses) and laid out tablecloths with folds lined up just so. Plates were placed a finger’s width from the edge of the table, and knife blades were turned inward to avoid expressing aggression toward our neighbors.

chateau d'apigne table


After our settings were declared tres bien and we sat down for our meal, Madame Ruault showed us a series of traditional French serving dishes and utensils — many of them centuries old — and invited us to guess what they were used for. It proved a fun and enlightening game; who knew that the French once had scissors specifically designed to halve grapes? But beyond the novelty, our lesson in French table etiquette offered a fascinating glimpse of the history and culture surrounding the delicious food we’d been enjoying all day in Rennes.

Editor’s Note: The French Way of Life experience can be organized through the Rennes Office of Tourism. The cost begins at 220 euros per group (no minimum or maximum size), plus 50 euros per person for the meal.

For more memorable off-the-beaten-path trip ideas, see our slideshow of the 12 Best France Experiences.

The Most Delicious Destinations for Foodies
12 International Foods to Try Before You Die

– written by Sarah Schlichter

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.

This week’s shot is from Ireland‘s dramatic Cliffs of Moher.

cliffs of moher ireland


12 Unforgettable Ireland Experiences

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

How to Plan a Trip to Europe in 10 Steps

– written by Sarah Schlichter

spanish steps romeOn my last night in Rome, I thought I’d gone blind.

Fortunately, it turned out that I was just very tired. The muscles in my left eye wouldn’t dilate my pupil, leaving me unable to take in more light. It was as though my pupil were a heavy barn door and keeping it open was just too much work.

Rome is not, as it happens, a relaxing place to go on holiday.

It is not a place to go if you’re looking for a more sedate pace of life. It’s a place where architecture falls over itself like people squeezing onto an over-stuffed Metro train.

We did try to have a quiet day. It was raining, so we went to Babington’s Tea Rooms in search of Earl Grey. Earl Grey tea is rare in Rome. It’s seen as more of a medicinal curiosity than a delicious refreshment, so you’re more likely to find it at a pharmacy than a restaurant. As we sipped, we ate sugary cakes that made our teeth buzz like maladjusted transistor radios.

When we’d finished, it was still raining, so we crossed the bottom of the Spanish Steps to visit the Keats-Shelley House. It’s a tiny, intimate museum, filling the space that was the poet John Keats’ last residence before his death from tuberculosis in 1821. We hadn’t meant to have such an English day, but the museum was close and, as it turned out, an excellent find.

Our Favorite Spots to Stay in Rome

As we rang the bell, we noticed an ugly knot of people gathered up, like a fist, around the column in the square. They were protestors. The armed guards outside the Spanish embassy looked nervous.

rome crowdWe’d settled into a dark room to watch a short film about the Romantic poets in Rome when a volley of shots outside drew everyone out of their seats and to the nearest window. So much for our quiet day.

We’d seen lots of protests during that week in April. A few days before, the president had been hastily sworn in for a second term to break the political deadlock that had mired the country for the last few years. Police and press crowded the streets, and jets flew tricolor smoke overhead.

Many Romans saw this as more of the same kind of corruption and cronyism that has caused many to lose faith in their political representatives. They felt dissatisfied with the slow pace of change, and the resurgent influence of Silvio Berlusconi — a man seen by many as an overt criminal — caused tempers to fray. There were blockades of expensive shops and hotels. Everyone wanted to make their opinion heard in ways that the traditional electoral system didn’t necessarily allow. Earlier in our trip we’d sat in a square in Trastavere watching some anti-fascists protesting by playing the accordion. (Didn’t you know? Accordion music is like a stake through the heart for fascists.)

Now, at the museum, we soon learned that the “shots” we’d heard had, in fact, been nothing more than a string of firecrackers that someone had let off under one of Keats’ windows.

The museum’s curator seemed sad. “It’s a vibrant city for sure,” she said, “but there’s a real dissatisfaction at the moment.”

walk rome cobblestonesFrom the outside, it looks impossible for Berlusconi to come back, but within Italy there is a lot of support — and now that he’s gaining power again, people are wondering whether anything they do will ever change anything.

We left Rome in a state of flux, but that’s nothing new. Rome thrives on change, on excitement, new ideas and influences. It is a city that has successfully reinvented itself over and over again throughout the centuries. Even when things seem hopeless, you get the feeling that a change could be just around the corner.

11 Unforgettable Italy Experiences

– written by Josh Thomas