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tieks ballet flatsBallet flats can be ideal for travel. They’re small and easy to pack. They’re almost always cute and they go with many different outfits. But – and this is a big but – they can be iffy when it comes to comfort. So when Tieks, an online retailer of the “reinvented” ballet flat, asked us to test their shoes, which they claim you can “wear all day, every day,” we decided to take them up on their offer. After all, a truly comfortable pair of stylish ballet flats we could travel everywhere with would be an amazing find.

I picked a clover green pair of the shoes (there are more than 35 colors to choose from) and waited for them to arrive.

11 Versatile Travel Essentials You Can’t Do Without

When they did arrive I was in for a small treat. The shoes come in a pretty box, wrapped with a flower bow. I expected to open the box and pull out the shoes, but no, it’s not that simple. The box is full of goodies besides the shoes, which come tucked into their folded-up style. There’s a small black stretchy carrying case for the flats, a larger scrunchable bag to throw your heels into if you’re switching shoes and several clips to pin up your trousers for going from heels to flats.

But the shoes were what I was really interested in and I immediately slipped them on.

It was apparent right away that they were cute – and I’ve since gotten numerous compliments on them. Their comfort was also immediately obvious. They just molded to my feet. The leather is soft and bends easily. It felt more like slipping on a pair of comfy house slippers than putting on shoes.

But I work at a desk all day. How do they hold up when you’re out and about, I wondered. After a week of wearing them to the office every day I finally had a chance to street test them when the entire IndependentTraveler.com company hit the streets of Princeton for a scavenger hunt. I spent nearly two hours running around 10 square blocks.

They did okay. The first hour was fine, but after that I could feel a sore spot slowly growing on the bottom of my left foot. By the time I sat down for dinner, I had a bona fide blister. So I probably won’t wear them again for heavy-duty walking – sorry, no walking tours through Paris in these shoes. But for a casual stroll, yeah, I’d slip them on.

 tieks ballet flats So, are these shoes good for traveling? Definitely. Even if I can’t wear them for a day of sightseeing by foot, these shoes are so easy to pack. When folded in half inside their carrying case, they really don’t take up more space than a camera. If I want to wear heels on the plane but don’t want to sit in them, I can easily switch them for the flats. They make great dinner shoes, because they really are stylish. For a moderate day of walking, they’re perfect as well.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

There is one drawback to these shoes, however. Definitely geared toward the trendy jetsetter, the price tag is quite steep. The clover green pair I selected cost $165 – and that’s the least expensive option! Other price points are $195, $235, $265 and $295.

I rarely spend more than $75 on a pair of shoes, so even at their lowest price point these shoes are out of my budget range. Besides, I’d find it difficult to justify spending $200 or more for a pair of ballet flats. But they certainly are cute and comfy, so if you’ve got the means and you don’t mind shelling out the bucks for fashion, then I say go for it. I doubt you’ll regret it.

– written by Dori Saltzman

In a recent poll, more than 77 percent of IndependentTraveler.com readers told us that they keep a travel journal during some or all of their trips — and I’m one of them.

Over the past decade, I’ve filled two and a half journals with scribbles about watching the sun rise in Morocco, hunting for “Lord of the Rings” sites in New Zealand and spotting totem poles in Vancouver. I’ve jotted down restaurants I wanted to recommend to friends and e-mail addresses for locals I wanted to keep in touch with. And at the end of every trip, when I get home and start sorting through hundreds and hundreds of photos, consulting my journal helps me figure out where I might’ve snapped those shots of fountains or flower boxes.

You can record your own trip memories in this attractive journal from Paperblanks, which we’re giving away to one lucky reader. The blue and gold cover is embossed with the writings of William Wordsworth, including quotes from his famous poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (also known as “Daffodils”).

travel journal paperblanks wordsworth

Aside from its old-fashioned beauty, we like the journal for its convenient size — just 4″ by 5.5″, perfect to slip into your purse or jacket pocket — and for the magnetic cover that keeps the book shut when you’re done writing. This journal retails for $14.95.

travel journal paperblanks wordsworth

To win the journal, leave a comment below by Monday, May 7, at 11:59 p.m. ET. Be sure to include a valid e-mail address so we can contact you in case you win. We’ll choose a winner on Tuesday.

19 Tips for Better Travel Photos

– written by Sarah Schlichter

royce leather RFID passport walletAs if travelers didn’t have enough to worry about. In addition to money belts to help us hide passports and credit cards under our clothes, there’s now a whole new line of travel gear to protect the electronic data stored on those documents.

Take the Royce RFID-Blocking Passport Wallet. This attractive leather case, which retails for $34, is designed to protect travelers against identity theft.

Since 2007, all U.S. passports have been issued with a small electronic chip embedded in the back cover. The chip uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to store information, including all of the identifying data printed on the front page of your passport, as well as a biometric identifier — a digital image of the passport photograph that can be used for facial recognition technology when you cross international borders. The information in the chip is transmitted via radio waves when the passport is scanned by an RFID reader.

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

Your passport may not be the only document you carry that has an RFID chip; many newer credit cards have them as well. (If you’re not sure, look for the term “PayPass” printed on your MasterCard, “expresspay” on your AmEx or “payWave” on your Visa — or call your credit card company.)

The rise in RFID technology has raised concerns about just how securely these chips store our information. Anyone with an RFID reader who gets close enough to the chip would in theory be able to read the embedded data — including card numbers and expiration dates — even through clothing or a purse.

royce leather RFID passport walletDoes this mean you should race out and purchase an RFID-blocking wallet? Not necessarily. The U.S. State Department offers a detailed description of the security features of its electronic passports here, which explains that the passports themselves have RFID-blocking metal built into the cover — so the chip can’t be read unless the passport is opened.

I think a protective wallet would be more useful for credit cards, which seem to be at greater risk for data skimming. The cheapskates among us can also block RFID readers by wrapping their cards in aluminum foil — if you’re willing to lose a few style points.

Four Common Travel Disasters and How to Prevent Them

– written by Sarah Schlichter

On a recent trip, I test-drove a set of packing cubes for the first time — and discovered that despite all the raves I’ve read about them, they’ll never make it into my “must-pack” pile. To paraphrase an old break-up cliche, the problem wasn’t the packing cubes. It was me.

Packing cubes are lightweight fabric bags that you can use to separate your suitcase into manageable sections. The ones I tried were an attractive green three-piece set from eBags, with cubes ranging in size from 17.5 by 12.75 by 3.25 inches to 11 by 6.75 by 3 inches.The set normally retails for $29.99 (though the site is currently offering a 20 percent discount).

ebags packing cubes

One of the main advantages of these packing cubes is their versatility. You can put pants in the large one, tops in the medium and socks/undies in the small. The Baby Bear-sized bag could also make a good home for a pair of shoes or some toiletries; meanwhile, Papa Bear can hold a decent-sized pile of dirty duds. For the organized traveler, the possibilities are endless.

Trouble is, I’m not a particularly organized traveler. Or, to be more precise, keeping things organized is less important to me than maximizing every inch of suitcase space. I typically roll my clothes into compact bundles that can be wedged neatly into gaps between other items, a strategy that’s allowed me to travel solely with a carry-on even on trips as long as two weeks. With the packing cubes, I found myself trying to work around three bulky rectangular shapes that, yes, kept things compartmentalized — but also left me with lots of wasted space.

And frankly, I didn’t really need a special organizer for my dirty laundry. Instead, I used what I always use: a plastic bag from the grocery store. (Cost: free.)

Four Signs You Have a Packing Problem

That said, here are a few examples of travelers who might benefit from using packing cubes:

-Partners who share a suitcase: Stow your clothes in blue bags and your hubby’s clothes in red ones so you can easily tell whose stuff is whose.

-Travelers who will be moving a lot from one hotel to another: Sort your outfits accordingly and you’ll only pull out what you need in each place, rather than turning your whole suitcase inside out.

For those travelers and more, I’m offering up my gently used packing cubes to help improve your next trip. If you’d like to receive my three-piece set of packing cubes, leave a comment below by Sunday, February 19, 2012, at 11:59 p.m. ET. We’ll pick one person at random to win the cubes. Be sure to include a valid e-mail address so we can notify you if you win.

11 Multi-Purpose Travel Essentials

– written by Sarah Schlichter

jelly beans independenttraveler.com mugLast Friday, we asked readers to guess how many jelly beans would fit into our brand-new IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. The answer was 449 jelly beans (laboriously counted three times by the site’s editor, who only ate a few afterward as a reward). Randy, who answered with 413, has won the travel mug. (There was another guess closer to the correct answer, but it was submitted outside the stated entry period of the contest.)

If you weren’t the lucky winner, don’t worry. You’ll get another shot at winning a mug this Friday, when our How Much Is This Hotel? contest returns.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

IndependentTraveler.com readers, meet our brand-new travel mug. This sealable red and black logo cup will tote your coffee, cola, water or wine everywhere from cars to trains to planes (just be sure to fill it up after you’ve gone through airport security). To celebrate the arrival of our new mug, we’re giving one away to a clever reader.

To win the mug, all you need to do is figure out how many jelly beans fit inside it. Here are a few photos to help you guess:

independenttraveler.com mug jelly beans

independenttraveler.com travel mug map

We’ll award the mug (jelly beans not included!) to the reader who guesses closest to the correct number of jelly beans without going over. In the case of a tie, the mug goes to the person who answers first. Leave your answer in the comments below, and be sure to include a valid e-mail address so we can contact you in case you win. You must enter by Monday night, January 16, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Tuesday.

Update, January 17: The correct answer has been posted! See the answer and find out who won.

Editor’s Note: Our weekly How Much Is This Hotel? contest will return next Friday.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

My carry-on bag and I had a long-term relationship. I don’t know our anniversary, but I must’ve traveled with the same plain, green, cheap-brand rollaboard for at least 10 years. I knew how to pack it so all my clothes would fit perfectly for a weeklong trip, and I was confident that it would fit in the overhead compartment of any major airline because that bag had already racked up serious frequent flier miles. It was love.

And then, this summer, it died.

Once I got over my grief, I realized I would need a new carry-on. While my trusty suitcase had probably been a hand-me-down from my mom, I was now overwhelmed with the choice of picking out my own. At eBags.com alone, you can choose from 570 different rolling carry-on bags. From wheeled duffels to colorful hard-sided bags, spinner wheels to roll-aboards-cum-backpacks, the choices were endless. Which would make the best travel companion in the years to come?

Choosing the Right Travel Luggage

Just as I was going cross-eyed from reading too many customer reviews and considering therapy for my loss, I got an e-mail from a PR rep for Lipault of Paris, touting a new bag making its U.S. debut. The Lipault Travel Buddy was described as “light as a feather, ultra-durable and accessibly priced.” (It retails for $189.) I was attracted to its bright colors — red, orange and purple — as I hate straining to figure out which bag is mine on the carousel. And I was most intrigued by the claim that it squishes down to fit into a four-inch case for easy storage. When you live in an apartment and cruise a lot, compressible luggage is key.

lipault travel buddy

So I got a free sample from the company to test out on a recent cross-country flight — a carry-on bag blind date, if you will. While I don’t think the Travel Buddy is the new love of my travel life, here’s my review of its, ahem, performance.

What I liked:

– The bag is definitely lightweight and compressible, made of strong 210-denier nylon twill fabric (I don’t know what that means either). 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.

– It’s very stuffable. I used it as my family’s laundry suitcase on the way back from our trip and just kept cramming more dirty clothes in, and the little bag just kept taking them. Though the bag looked full, I think I could have added even more with a little extra squishing.

– The carry-on fit easily in the overhead compartment with room to spare, even in the odd space over the lip between two compartment openings.

– The bag stood out, not only for its bright purple color but because it didn’t look like the typical carry-on. I even got a comment on it from the airline rep at bag check — and you know she sees a lot of luggage every day!

lipault travel buddy

What I didn’t like:

– The bag has official dimensions of 21.6 x 14.2 x 7.9 inches (the PR rep calls it a 22-inch bag, while the Web site lists it as 20 inches). But as you can see from the photo, it appeared much smaller than my husband’s bag, the REI Tech Beast (official dimensions: 22 x 14 x 8.5 inches). As a tall person, I’m not sure I could fit a week’s worth of clothes in there (especially once you add in shoes). The next size up, the 25-inch bag, is not carry-on friendly.

– The outside pocket is in the middle of the bag, yet the pocket runs the length of the bag. It was awkward to pack, and once the inside compartment of the bag was maxed out, it was nearly impossible to squeeze anything into the exterior pocket. Also, while the bag expands to the limits of its flexible material, it does not have a zippered expansion section.

– The $189 price tag is a little high for a small-ish carry-on whose only real feature is its compressibility.

Final verdict: I enjoyed my time with the Travel Buddy, but I think we can only be friends.

11 Versatile Travel Essentials You Can’t Do Without

If you know an eligible bag good for a former frequent flier, now toting a tyke, who likes international travel, outdoor adventures, urban escapes, extra legroom seats and long walks through a terminal, let me know in the comments section below.

– written by Erica Silverstein

napsacUnless you’re 18 inches tall, sleeping on a plane can require Zen, calculated fatigue, a prescription, and three or four Finlandia and tonics.

Enter the Napsac ($47.50): one part backpack, one part sleeping apparatus for the spatially oppressed.

Inventor Joe Maginness sent over a sample of his travel innovation, which is basically a well-constructed backpack topped with a U-shaped memory foam pillow. Inside, there’s a support beam that keeps the walls of the bag rigid and upright. Tired? Wear the backpack in reverse, tighten the straps, rest your chin in the bag’s soft concavity and ponder a placid mountain lake on a windless morning.

Sleeping on Planes

If a horse can sleep standing up, surely I can sleep stuffed in coach with the Napsac on a Continental red-eye to France. The bag was screaming — nay, neighing — for a field test.

Try as I might to get comfortable, though, sleep did not come. I felt too much downward chin pressure when using the bag. After about 90 seconds, a hungry grizzly started trotting through the lake toward me, and I needed to readjust, firing a metaphorical gunshot in the air, to ease my jaw tension. Ninety seconds later, he was back. I have a theory that the chin issue was caused by my torso being longer than the sac, thus creating too much space between pillow and beard. Either way, the in-flight squirming continued.

Perhaps my lack of comfort was my own fault. When using the Napsac, proper posture — a problem for anyone bound to a desk for a third of his life — is key. A straight back allows the sac to be sufficiently tight against one’s body and held in position.

While I couldn’t quite hit the sack with the backpack, I did use it frequently during idle moments on the road. I was the slightly hunched traveler, chin resting on pillow, on the fountain steps in front of Notre Dame, on a park bench, in an art museum studying Impressionists. When I was just looking for a quick break, I called on the sac. And despite my in-flight insomnia, I found myself commending the product for its above-standard bag qualities. The Napsac fit a laptop in a padded pocket, and a guidebook and a sandwich in the main compartment. A cell phone, an MP3 player, a packet of cookies and car keys occupied the many zippered pockets. Frankly, it was just a nice carry-on bag, pillow or not.

Now it’s your turn to try the Napsac. My field tested (gently used) version is up for grabs. Simply post your tip for sleeping on an airplane in the comments, and we’ll choose one responder at random to receive the bag.

– written by Dan Askin

cityslipsEarlier today, we asked our readers to reveal their favorite travel shoes on our Facebook page. No single brand or type prevailed. Our well-traveled readers recommended everything from classic leather walking shoes like SAS Free Time to trendy offerings from Tom’s footwear. Some folks even hit the road Neanderthal style. Said John Channel, “None … [I] like to feel the earth.”

Unlike many of our Facebook followers, I’ve yet to find a go-to pair of travel kicks — and I’m not keen on wandering shoeless through the airport. So when CitySlips sent me some foldable shoes to review, I was pumped. CitySlips are lightweight, bendy ballet flats, which fold into a small, easy-to-pack shape. The shoes come with a nylon carrying pouch that unfurls into a larger tote. (Sorry, guys. CitySlips doesn’t make shoes for men.)

On a recent trip to Europe, I packed my pair of classic CitySlips, which sell for $24.95 on the company’s Web site. I was pleased to discover that each shoe took up about as much room as a balled-up pair of socks. I could even fit one shoe tightly into a pant pocket.

I always wear my bulkiest shoes in transit, for the sake of saving suitcase space. So during a transatlantic flight and a three-hour road trip, I donned knee-high boots. When I finally arrived at my B&B, pulled off my boots and slipped on the CitySlips, my feet sang. The shoes felt soft and cozy; they offer the comfort level of slippers, but you can wear them in public without looking like you’ve just escaped from the hospital.

Score one for foldable shoes. But there’s a downside: CitySlips weren’t built for long-distance walking. The flats were originally designed to be backup shoes for travelers caught in painful stilettos or blister-inducing boots. I tried wearing mine for a few hours while navigating the cobblestone streets of Paris, and I didn’t feel like I was getting the appropriate support for heavy walking. CitySlips are better suited for long car or plane rides, breakfasts at the hotel and short walks to close-by cafes than for multi-mile schleps through city streets.

Want to try ‘em for yourself? Enter coupon code 10OFF and receive a 10 percent discount when you purchase your shoes on CitySlips.com.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us about your favorite travel shoes!

– written by Caroline Costello

We’ve found a carry-on bag that does more than, er, carry. It’s a $66 bag that could pay for itself in just one flight (depending on which airline you choose) — a bag that was designed in direct response to ever-evolving airline fees and bag-size restrictions.

On most airlines, there’s an easy way to avoid baggage fees: restrict yourself to a carry-on bag only. But on ultra-low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines (one of those airlines we love to hate), you’ll have to break out your wallet no matter how efficiently you pack. The airline charges up to $45 each way for checked bags and up to $40 for carry-ons. (Even joining Spirit’s $9 Fare Club will merely reduce the fees, not waive them.) The only thing you can bring for free is a single personal item small enough to fit under the seat in front of you.

Before all you Spirit fliers start trying to jam a week’s worth of clothes into your purse, check out the luggage at CarryOn Free. Smaller than a standard carry-on bag, the CarryOn Free rolling suitcase is specifically designed to meet Spirit’s size restrictions for personal items (16″ x 14″ x 12″). Two zipper pockets help travelers stay organized and make the most of limited packing space.

carryon free

At $65.99, the bag pays for itself the first time you avoid Spirit’s carry-on fee (up to $80 roundtrip). But even better, you can win one for free. We’re giving away a tan and copper carry-on to one lucky reader who leaves a comment below. Just share your smartest packing tip in the comments by Tuesday, September 27 at 11:59 p.m. ET for a chance to win.

Editor’s Note: This giveaway has ended, and unfortunately, the bag is no longer being produced.

– written by Sarah Schlichter