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gomadic sunvolt solar chargerDo you know someone who’s always on the road or in the air? You could gift that person with the standard inflatable pillow, ear plugs or luggage, but why not surprise him or her with the true comforts and conveniences of home instead? These items are practical and perfect for use on long international trips, from the plane to the hotel and everywhere in between.

KnowRoaming
This is the answer to every international traveler’s biggest problem: roaming charges. KnowRoaming is a prepaid data sticker that attaches to your phone (in a one-time application) and automatically switches to a local provider upon arrival in a new country. You can pay as you go (rates vary by country) and easily manage usage in the app so there aren’t any surprises; for heavy users, unlimited plans are also available for $7.99 per day. A bonus: Your actual phone number shows up when making calls.

Note: Before you buy this for a friend or family member, make sure you know what type of phone he or she has. KnowRoaming doesn’t operate on Blackberries or CDMA phones. Also, phones must be unlocked prior to a trip — this means network restrictions need to be removed so the phone can operate with a different SIM card. Check KnowRoaming.com for restrictions and guidelines by carrier.

Approximate Cost: $30

Gomadic SunVolt
You’ve heard of multi-device chargers that don’t require outlets (if they’ve already been charged by one, of course), but Gomadic SunVolt doesn’t require outlets at any point. Why? It’s powered by solar energy. Up to two devices can charge at a time, and additional lithium polymer batteries can be purchased to store excess energy for nighttime charges.

Approximate Cost: $100

Christmas Markets: Europe and Beyond

Olloclip 4-in-1 Lens System
Maybe your giftee doesn’t want to lug a big camera and multiple lenses around during a three-week tour of Europe. Instead, consider the gift of an Olloclip 4-in1 Lens System (for iPhones). It offers four views: fish-eye, wide-angle and two macro options. It easily clips on to iPhones and comes with two lens caps and a carrying case.

Approximate Cost: $70

Kikkerland Music Branch 3-Way Headphone Splitter
There’s no need to share a set of headphones with this nifty, inexpensive gadget, ideal for traveling duos or trios. This earphone splitter offers three inputs so two or three people can watch a movie or listen to music together on a laptop (rather than squint at those small airplane screens). It’s also useful for couples with napping youngsters in tow.

Approximate Cost: $10

Satechi USB Portable Humidifier v.1
The Satechi USB Portable Humidifier connects to a water bottle and moistens dry air in hotel rooms (or even at home between trips) — perfect for rehydrating your nose and sinuses after a long-haul flight. When filled with cold water, it also acts as a mister to cool you off on hot days. Other functions include dim lighting for nighttime and aroma diffusing — just add liquid fragrances. To operate, plug into a USB port; it automatically shuts off after eight hours.

Approximate Cost: $30

Escape the Cold: 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations

– written by Amanda Geronikos

eatsmart digital luggage scaleIf you’ve ever gotten to the check-in desk at the airport and been alarmed to discover that your suitcase was overweight, there’s an easy solution: a luggage scale.

While you can always try putting your suitcase on your bathroom scale at home, a luggage scale is an easier and more accurate way to see just how heavy your bag is. As a bonus, you can take it with you on your trip too, so before you head home, you can weigh your bag in your hotel room to figure out whether all those souvenirs you bought will push you over your airline’s weight limit.

We recently took EatSmart’s Precision Voyager Digital Luggage Scale for a spin. The scale is easy to use, with a simple on/off button and a “UNIT” button that toggles between pounds and kilograms.

To weigh your bag, you attach the scale to your suitcase handle using a sturdy strap and buckle. Then you lift the bag for a few seconds until the scale offers a digital reading. It helps that the scale’s handle is big enough for both hands; that makes it easier to lift a heavy bag for the few seconds it takes the scale to display the weight. The scale can handle up to 110 pounds (50 kilograms).

You may be tempted to pack your bag all the way up to the 50-pound limit (which is when most airline overweight fees start kicking in). However, we’d recommend leaving yourself a couple of extra pounds — not only to pack the scale itself, as EatSmart recommends, but also to allow for variation between the scale’s readings and those of the scale at the airport. When we weighed the same bag several times, we got different readings from the Precision Voyager, ranging from 10.9 – 11.2 pounds for an empty suitcase and 28.5 – 28.8 pounds for a full one. Best to leave a little room for error.

7 Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

The scale is currently selling on Amazon.com for $19.95 plus shipping. Want to win one for yourself? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, November 17, 2014. We’ll pick two people at random to win a luggage scale. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

travelwise packing cubesIf you consider packing a vocation and allocate every square inch of your suitcase using a color-coded spreadsheet, you’re probably already familiar with packing cubes, those soft-sided little rectangles of happiness that make organizing a snap and ensure you’ll pack light.

For the uninitiated, packing cubes are essentially rectangular zip-close bags that come in various sizes. They help keep clothes from wrinkling because they reduce shifting in luggage, and they allow travelers to make the best use of limited suitcase space.

TravelWise offers a 3-Piece Packing Cube Weekender Set that includes cubes in three sizes, ostensibly for those looking to organize for shorter trip. Here’s how they stacked up on trip in which they were used in conjunction with a standard carry-on suitcase.

Size
The three sizes (11.5 inches by 6.75 inches by 3.75 inches; 13.75 by 9.75 by 3.75; and 17.5 by 12.75 by 4) make organizing simple, with smaller items like undergarments and socks fitting perfectly in the smallest cube and pants and blouses in larger two. All three cubes easily fit into a standard carry-on bag, with room for spare items like shoes.

The biggest cube seems unnecessarily large, though. Maybe I’m just a light packer, but for a weekend trip I probably could’ve left that one at home to make room for other odd-sized items.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Zippers
Confession: I have been known to overpack cubes, leading to a burst zipper or two. TravelWise’s zippers are sturdy and easy to grip, and they pull smoothly. I didn’t test them to their max, but they withstood lots of repeated opening and closing.

Material
Packing cubes are supposed to help you organize your items without bogging you down, so “lightweight” is essential to any materials. Made of nylon, TravelWise’s packing cubes are plenty light, with a mesh panel in the center of each. The mesh helps you identify what is in each cube at a glance so you aren’t stuck digging through to find things. This design also allows airflow, so I was able to pack dirty clothes in them for the return trip. The cubes require handwashing.

Handles
I often leave my clothes in the cubes, then just plop them in a drawer at the hotel when I arrive, so having a handle is a small convenience that makes grab-and-go that much easier. The handles on TravelWise’s cubes are durable, and they stand up to being hung from hangers, showerheads and hooks.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

The Bottom Line
Ultimately, there isn’t a lot of variation in packing cubes from brand to brand. Most high-quality cubes come in various sizes, are made of durable materials and have multiple color options. TravelWise’s cubes are slightly deeper than other brands I’ve used, which will accommodate more clothing without taking up significantly more space in your suitcase. They’re available through online retailers such as Amazon and retail for $39.95.

Want to win a set of gently used red packing cubes? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on October 27, 2014. We’ll pick one person at random to win the bag. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Roanne Coplin, who will receive a set of gently used packing cubes. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further chances to win.

– written by Colleen McDaniel

ebags exo suitcaseOn a recent 10-day trip to Norway, I packed everything but the kitchen sink into one of eBags’ EXO 2.0 24-inch spinner suitcases. If you’ve been considering a new piece of luggage, you’ll want to read on — not just for a rundown of my experience with the bag but also for a chance to win an EXO 2.0 of your very own.

Exterior
Liked: The exterior of the EXO 2.0 is made of polycarbonate, which means it’s insanely durable. The case I tested made it through four flights with only minor scratches, thanks to the crosshatch-type pattern on the shell, which helps to reduce the visibility of such mishaps.

Didn’t Like: Although functional, the crosshatch exterior design doesn’t exactly look nice. I was initially excited when I learned the bag I’d be trying was red, but I quickly discovered red isn’t as uncommon on airport conveyor belts as you might think. I’d recommend trying one of the other available bright colors like purple or yellow. (Standard colors like black and gray are options too.)

Interior
Liked: There’s a ton of space, and I found that the main compartment’s straps helped to keep my abundance of clothing contained. A separate compartment, offset by a full swath of zippable mesh, was great for separating everything from shoes to dirty laundry from the rest of my stuff.

Didn’t Like: There are no additional pockets or compartments, which can make the packing of smaller items a challenge. eBags touts the fact that the EXO 2.0’s main compartment has a removable, adjustable shelf (attached to the interior of the suitcase via Velcro) to keep packed items from shifting or crushing each other. I didn’t find it to be all that useful because I packed enough to ensure no shifting would take place. It might come in handy for separating clean clothes from dirty ones or your clothes from those of a travel companion if you’re sharing luggage.

Wheels
Liked: The wheels are durable with a double-wheel construction, which means that your bag is less likely to tip over if you leave it upright.

Didn’t Like: Because of the dual-wheel configuration, the suitcase has a wider base, making it a little more difficult to maneuver than one with a single-wheel design. But the wider base is also what keeps the bag from toppling over, so it’s a trade-off.

Handles
Liked: All handles (adjustable handle used for dragging and top/side handles used for lifting) are sleek in appearance and are nearly flush with the sides of the case for a streamlined look. Plus, the extendable handle used for pulling the bag adjusts to three different heights.

Didn’t Like: Because the handles are recessed with little clearance, it can be difficult to get your fingers under them to lift luggage in a hurry (for example, grabbing your bag off of the conveyor belt). Combine that with the suitcase’s rough crosshatch exterior, and you’ve got a recipe for skinned knuckles. I also found the extendable handle to be a little on the flimsy side, given the overall size of the luggage.

Lock
ebags exo suitcase zippers lockLiked: As someone who routinely uses removable luggage locks, I love the idea of a suitcase that’s got a lock built in. No more worrying about losing the lock or fumbling to be sure it’s passed through both zippers when you try to re-secure everything. The built-in version is TSA-friendly, and the instructions for using it are a piece of cake.

Didn’t Like: Although setting the lock’s combination was easy, it took me a few minutes to figure out that the zipper pulls actually slide into openings to the right of the lock in order to secure the case. Beyond that, it took me even longer to discover that the only way to keep the zipper from partially gaping when locked (leaving a small opening into the main suitcase compartment) is to crisscross the zippers and then secure them. (The bag’s specs do mention that it has “patent-pending cross-over X zipper pullers,” but I had no idea what that meant.)

Overall
The EXO 2.0 is a durable, lightweight suitcase that offers some innovative features with the crisscross zippers, interior shelf and crosshatch exterior design. It’s currently available on the eBags website for $160, and it comes with a lifetime eBags warranty, exchange or return. In spite of the minor issues I had, it’s a solid choice overall.

If you’d like to enter to win a brand-new EXO 2.0 hardside suitcase, leave us a message in the comments by 11:59 p.m. ET on September 1, 2014. We’ll pick one winner at random. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

If you can’t wait until we pick a winner to do some eBags shopping, click here to get 15 percent off your purchase and free shipping on orders of more than $49. This discount is good through September 4, 2014.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Andrew P. Stay tuned for more chances to win!

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Calling all hikers and international travelers! If you often find yourself in places where you don’t have easy access to safe drinking water — such as developing countries or remote hiking trails — you may be interested in a new product called the GRAYL.

This attractive, stainless steel water filtration cup works almost like a French press. You fill up an outer mug with water, then push a slightly narrower cup (equipped with a filter) into the outer mug, which forces the liquid through the filter and removes bacteria and other impurities that can make the water unsafe to drink. Check out the video below for a demonstration.



The GRAYL, which sells for $69.95, comes with a filter that removes 99.99 percent of bacteria and 99.94 percent of protozoan cysts, as well as metals and chemicals such as chlorine, BPA and lead. The filter is good for about 300 uses and can be replaced for $19.95 (or $49.95 for three).

While the normal filter is sufficient for travel within the United States or to most other developed countries, international travelers or backcountry hikers will probably want to upgrade to the Purifier, which costs $39.95. Beyond everything the standard filter removes, the Purifier takes care of 99.999 percent of viruses, bacteria and protozoa.

If there’s one downside to the GRAYL (aside from the cost), it’s the weight. It comes in at 19.6 ounces before you even fill it with water, making it a heavy addition to your daypack — but it sure beats carrying multiple disposable water bottles.

Drinking Water Safety
Traveling in a Developing Country: 11 Dos and Don’ts

Want to try it for yourself? We’re giving away a GRAYL, including both the regular filter and the Purifier, to one lucky winner. To enter, leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on April 27, 2014. We’ll pick one winner at random. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

good night sleep maskIn the eternal quest for better sleep on planes, here’s a unique product to try: the Good Night Sleep Mask from Magellan’s. Unlike most eye masks, this one is specially molded so that it doesn’t press right against your eyelids, allowing for rapid eye movement (REM) and therefore more refreshing sleep, according to Magellan’s.

I was eager to give the Good Night Sleep Mask a try; I use eye masks often, not only on planes but also on weekends at home when I want to block the morning sun out and sleep in for a few extra hours. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it particularly comfy to wear, especially at first. The nose piece felt too tight and hampered my breathing a bit, so I had to wear the mask slightly higher than it seemed to be designed for. That left the bottom edges of the mask digging uncomfortably into the sensitive skin under my eyes.

I persevered, though, and found the mask less bothersome the second and third times I tried it. As for the sleep itself, the mask was dark enough to block out the light and allow me to doze off, and I woke up feeling rested. It’s hard to say whether I felt any more refreshed than I had wearing other eye masks, but I’m going to keep this one around just in case.

How to Sleep Better on Planes

The mask sells for $14.50 plus shipping on Magellans.com, and is available in four colors: black, cocoa, pewter and ocean blue.

Want to try it yourself? We’re giving away an ocean blue Good Night Sleep Mask to one lucky winner. To enter, leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on March 27, 2014. We’ll pick one winner at random. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

magellan's card size led travel lightThere’s not much that can take the place of a good book when I’m trying to kill time on a long-haul flight, but airplane reading lamps never quite give me enough light. Enter Magellan’s Card Size LED Travel Light. It claims to charge itself in one hour via a USB cable and provide up to two hours of light.

So, did it work? The short answer is yes, but there are caveats. Read on for the pros and cons.

What We Didn’t Like
Although this little baby only takes one hour to charge, it’s done by USB cable, which means it’s not super-convenient if you’re traveling without a laptop or an adapter for a regular wall outlet. We also found that, once charged, the light started to die out after only 90 minutes — 30 minutes shy of the two-hour usage time the packaging promises.

What We Liked
The travel light charges rapidly (assuming you have a proper place to charge it), and it’s definitely compact — the width and height of a standard credit card, to be exact. It’s a space-saving plus for someone like me who opposes e-readers on principle and travels with at least two bulky novels at all times. It easily turns on and off with the push of a button, and it’s got three different light strengths, so you can conserve battery power if you find that the highest settings are too bright. The USB cord also wraps right around the base for easy storage, and the bendable stem allows you to position the light wherever you need it.

Expert Packing Tips for 4 Common Trips

All things considered, this product is a win, especially at the affordable price of $20. Want one of your very own? Leave a comment below for a chance to win the travel light. Enter by 11:59 p.m. ET on February 17, 2014. We’ll pick one winner at random. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Diane Lieberman. Congratulations! Please check back in the future for other chances to win great travel products.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

2013 2014 beach new yearBefore we jump head first into 2014, we’re taking one last look back at the year that was. Of all the travel tips and trends we covered in 2013, there were a few that got our readers ranting, raving or simply laughing. Read on as we count down our 10 most popular blog posts of the past year.

10. Air New Zealand did it again. The airline known for its creative and hilarious in-flight safety videos came out with another winner in November, this time featuring the inimitable Betty White.

9. We reviewed and gave away dozens of travel products in 2013, but the biggest hit was the ultra-innovative Suitcase That Beats Bed Bugs.

8. When an Asiana Airlines plane crashed at San Francisco Airport in July, it spurred us to wonder: Where Are the Safest Seats on a Plane?

7. It isn’t often that we can bring readers good news from the travel industry, so when T-Mobile Eliminated Roaming Fees for Cell Phone Users Abroad, we and our fellow travelers rejoiced.

6. Few things get travelers more riled up than the topic of kids on planes. This year saw several Asian airlines introduce child-free zones on some of their flights — and while many of our readers were supportive of keeping kids as far away as possible, one parent took a different tack in her controversial Open Letter to People Who Hate Flying with Kids.

5. Turns out that even a so-called “travel expert” makes the occasional packing blunder. See what happens When a Travel Writer Ignores Her Own Advice.

4. A guest contributor from a currency exchange service shared his best practical tips in Buying Foreign Currency: Get More Bang for Your Buck.

3. Our post on 5 Signs You’re Not a True Traveler stirred up some strong emotions in the comments section. Reader Christy said our list was “spot on,” while Clare accused us of “imposing [a] very restrictive idea of what an experience must be.” What’s your take?

2. On a long, boring flight, leafing through the SkyMall catalog is always entertaining. Readers got a good laugh from our list of 9 Useless Items You Can Buy at 35,000 Feet, ranging from a mounted squirrel head to a porch potty for dogs.

1. Catching Zs while crammed into a tiny airplane seat is always a struggle. Could the perfect travel pillow help the cause? We reviewed four of them in Travel Pillow Challenge: The Quest for Good Airplane Sleep.

The Weirdest Travel News of 2013

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Welcome to IndependentTraveler.com’s 12 Days of Travel Giveaways! Every day between December 2 and December 13, we’ll feature a different travel product for our readers to win. You may enter to win as many items as you wish (but only once per item).

lipault foldable carry-onOur final giveaway is a Lipault 22-Inch Two-Wheeled Foldable Carry-On, a lightweight bag that can be compressed into a four-inch-wide plastic case for easy storage.

Here’s what we had to say about the bag in The Quest for the Perfect Carry-On: “I expected a thinner, floppier material (a la LeSportsac bags or ultra-light camping equipment), but it’s actually pretty sturdy. I carried it onboard one way, and could easily lift and carry the bag, while simultaneously pushing a stroller and carrying a backpack. I checked it on the way back, and it came back to me with no scuffs or tears. And it truly does squeeze down into a compact storage case that would fit easily under a bed, in a closet or in the corner of a cruise ship cabin.”

The carry-on retails for $189 at the Lipault website.

Want to win this gently used purple carry-on? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on December 15, 2013. We’ll pick one person at random to win the bag. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Isabel Menendez. Congratulations!

Did you miss any of our previous giveaways? Catch up here: 12 Days of Travel Giveaways: Full List

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Welcome to IndependentTraveler.com’s 12 Days of Travel Giveaways! Every day between December 2 and December 13, we’ll feature a different travel product for our readers to win. You may enter to win as many items as you wish (but only once per item).

j-pillowToday’s giveaway is a J-Pillow, which was designed to reduce neck strain and provide head support for travelers or others who are forced to sleep sitting up. The pillow is unique in that it has a pillow for the side of the head as well as a “trunk” that slips under the chin to prevent the head from falling forward.

While the concept is solid, the execution is a bit shaky. The covering fabric, which feels like a combination of fleece and velvet, was a bit too slick, which means it’s difficult to keep the pillow in place. If you’ve got a window seat or an understanding travel buddy, prop the pillow against a window or shoulder, and it will stay put. We did like the nifty clip, which can be used to hook the pillow onto carry-on items.

It’s a nice idea, and while it didn’t work exactly as expected for us, it might work perfectly for you. The J-Pillow can be purchased for $34.95 at JPillow.com.

Want to win this prize? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on December 15, 2013. We’ll pick one person at random to win the pillow. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Michele Loper. Congratulations!

Stay tuned tomorrow for our final giveaway!

12 Days of Travel Giveaways: Full List

– written by Colleen McDaniel