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fried matzah passover ms inspireTry explaining a Seder plate to someone who barely understands what Passover is. Not an easy task, but one I found myself undertaking on a recent river cruise aboard Tauck’s newest boat, ms Inspire.

The second to last night of my nine-night Dutch Waterways cruise was the first night of Passover, my favorite Jewish holiday. I’ve only missed Passover with my family one other time in my 41 years, back in 2004 when I was backpacking around New Zealand. I went to a Seder at a synagogue and was one of maybe 100 tourists there. This time there would be no synagogue to turn to.

I packed matzah and a Haggadah, the special Jewish text that tells the story of Egyptian slavery and subsequent exodus of the Jewish people that all Jews use before and after dinner on the first two nights of Passover. The Haggadah outlines the elements of the Seder, which is essentially a ritual Passover meal.

My first day onboard, the maitre d’ invited all passengers to speak with him about their dietary requirements. I asked him if any other passengers had inquired about having a Seder onboard. He looked at me blankly.

“The special dinner for Passover,” I added, hoping that would help. He still didn’t quite get it, but one of our tour directors was there and immediately understood what I was talking about.

“Not yet,” he told me, adding that he thought there were probably a lot of Jewish people onboard and he’d see if he could find anyone interested in joining me. An hour later, he approached me in the lounge and said he had a couple for me to meet.

Marcy and Jeff Silverman, travel agents from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, were very interested, though they made it clear they were hoping for a shortened Seder (some can take up to an hour or more before you get to eat). My Haggadah has a shortened version, so no problem there.

Over the course of the next week I met several other Jewish passengers, though none were interested until I met Helen and Harvey Hacker. I mentioned the Seder to Helen, and she told me she knew Harvey would want to join in.

With our little group up to four, it was time to approach someone on the crew about actually setting up the Seder. An important element of the Seder is the Seder plate on which ritual items are placed to represent various elements of the story. These include, among others: a roasted egg, lamb shank bone, horseradish, green herb and charoset (a sweet pasted made of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon).

Away from Home for the Holidays

Two days before the first night of Passover, I approached Marina, the ship’s hotel director, to ask about setting up a small table at the back of the dining room for a Seder and putting together a simplified Seder plate. I asked her for:

- A roasted egg

- A roasted beet (it’s the vegetarian alternative to a shank bone, since it represents the same blood color, and is much easier to ask for than a meatless lamb shank bone!)

- Parsley and horseradish

- A small mixture of chopped apples and nuts (I figured that was easier than finding a charoset recipe)

- A bowl of salt water (needed to dip the parsley)

“No problem,” Marina told me with a smile.

I next asked Yener, one of the tour directors, if he could make copies of pages from my Haggadah so everyone could follow along. Another warm smile and I soon had four sets of pages to distribute. We were set.

On the first night of Passover, at 6:20 p.m., Marcy, Jeff, Harvey and I sat down at a table for six at the back of the main dining room. I had a box of matzah. The maitre d’ brought out our Seder plate and a large bowl of salt water. A waiter filled our wine glasses.

We took turns reading from the Haggadah in soft voices so as not to disturb anyone dining nearby. We said the prayer over the wine and sipped from our glasses, we took a drop of wine out for each of the 10 plagues, we dipped our parsley in salt water and combined horseradish with charoset. I even chanted the first two questions of the Four Questions, which are always asked by the youngest person at the table.

I wasn’t with my family, we weren’t drinking Manischewitz and no one spilled wine. But it felt like home.

9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

Have you ever celebrated a holiday away from home?

– written by Dori Saltzman

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 captures a Christmas market in Frankfurt, Germany.

frankfurt christmas market germany


Photos: 12 Best Germany 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.)

See Which Airport Has a Christmas Market

– written by Sarah Schlichter

merida independence day grito de doloresImagine how many insights travelers to the United States would glean about the American character if they visited during our Independence Day celebrations on July 4.

They’d pick up some of our essential values, such as patriotism (flying of flags), love for family and community (reunions, BBQs, hometown parades), distrust for institutional authority (setting off fireworks, both legal and illegal) and occasional stupidity (ER visits because of the aforementioned fireworks). Not to mention all of those sales (pursuit of happiness?).

Of course, we’re not the only country that celebrates an Independence Day. So when I found out that I’d be traveling in Mexico over its holiday (held on September 16 — not Cinco de Mayo as many people think), I saw it as a chance to dive a bit deeper into our southern neighbor’s national psyche.

My trip to Merida, a colonial city in Yucatan that’s popular with expats, also reminded me that visiting countries during their holidays can require a few schedule (and attitude) adjustments. Here are some tips I picked up.

Read up. Before you go, it helps to learn about the country’s history. A bit of research taught me that Mexico’s struggle for freedom from Spain was just as arduous — if not more so — as our break with Britain. For one thing, the war lasted 11 years, from 1810 to 1821, compared to our eight. And Spain had been in control of the colony since 1521, establishing dominance for nearly 300 years (talk about fighting the power).

The centerpiece of Mexican Independence Day is called the Grito de Dolores, a symbolic re-creation of the beginning of the revolution. It’s broadcast nationwide from Dolores, the small town in central Mexico where it all began. On the night of September 15, crowds gather in city public squares throughout Mexico to ring bells and watch fireworks. Having a little knowledge about the first Grito, issued as a call to arms by a Roman Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, made the event more special for me.

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Expect crowds — and closures. I arrived in Cancun on September 14, the Saturday before the holiday. The airport was even more packed than usual, with Mexicans arriving from overseas to celebrate the holiday at home or taking advantage of the three-day weekend to go on short trips outside the country.

Once I arrived in Merida, I learned that some attractions I’d planned on visiting, such as the Noche Mexicana, a folk festival usually held on Saturday evenings, would not be taking place. Some roads were also closed to through traffic, which meant taking a cab to the Plaza Grande was out of the question (luckily, it was a short walk from my hotel).

Tip generously. Not everyone has Independence Day off, of course. Because of the increased crowds, the day was business as usual — and then some — for people who work in the hospitality industry. If you know that you are keeping your driver, tour operator or server from being with their families on their national holiday, it’s a nice gesture to make your tip a little more special. After all, wouldn’t you want visitors to the States to do the same?

merida independence dayTake part. After checking with my concierge to make sure it was safe, I headed out to the Independence Day festivities around 10 p.m. Sunday night. The streets were packed with revelers, mostly families, and the restaurants on the Plaza Grande were full. After grabbing a mango sherbet at Sorbeteria Colon, which has been serving sweet treats since 1907, I positioned myself on a bench to people watch (the giggling teenagers with the fake moustaches — a tribute to the bushy revolutionaries — were particularly entertaining).

I didn’t have long to wait. After the Grito at 11 p.m., the crowd erupted into cheers. “Vivan los heroes que nos dieron patria!” the chant started, before naming some of the country’s founding fathers. “Viva nuestra independencia! Viva Mexico! Viva!

At the end of the third “Viva Mexico,” fireworks shot into the sky. The national anthem started to play, and the people around me started singing. I found myself moved by their obvious love for their country, and realized that patriotism — as opposed to its more sinister cousin, nationalism — is a beautiful thing to watch, regardless of your passport.

4 Unique Activities to Do in Riviera Maya, Mexico

– written by Chris Gray Faust

What do you do with your expired passports? If you’re anything like me, you’ve got them sitting in a box in the back of a closet somewhere, along with other fading mementoes of past trips. But one traveler we know has a more creative idea: “Since an old passport has a punched hole in the upper left hand corner, it sounds like a Christmas ornament for hanging to me!”

Old passports aren’t the only souvenirs that Chicago-based travel writer Kit Bernardi has transformed into holiday decorations. “Our Christmas tree has been travel-themed for years with funky, not-meant-to-be ‘ornaments’ that remind us of great travel memories,” Bernardi told us. Below is a snapshot of her family’s freshly decorated Fraser fir tree, which offers a glimpse of some of their favorite journeys.

christmas tree


Here’s what’s on Bernardi’s tree, in her own words: “Next to one of my retired passports there’s a springbok’s horn ‘love potion’ powder carrier with an ostrich egg shell bead strap from Namibia, a gift from the Bushman tribe we camped with; a geisha doll’s shoe from Kyoto, Japan; hanging off the branch left of the passport is a red, mini-devil’s mask from Carnival in Brazil; a dream catcher from a family snowmobile trip in Jackson Hole, WY, is next to a terra cotta ‘kitchen god’ from Santa Fe, NM; a carved bone horn for a necklace from Botswana is sort of behind it; an acacia seed pod from Zimbabwe is hooked over the branch above the passport; a paper Chinese doll from Beijing is below the passport. And that’s just a sampling.”

The Best Ways to Commemorate a Trip

How do you use your travel mementoes to decorate your home, whether over the holidays or throughout the year?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

gift beach palm treeTravel-related gift guides for this year’s holiday season are, no question, a helpful way to get a bead on what’s fun and new for the travelers in your life. They’re also alarmingly efficient, especially those that you find online, because with a couple of clicks on the keyboard, you’ve bought and shipped. Marvelous.

But there’s a downside. These online gift guides are proving to be way too tempting for self-indulgence. Thanks to Cruise Critic, IndependentTraveler.com’s sister site, I’ve learned about Gin & Titonic, a ship and iceberg ice cube tray that describes its appeal as “watch the ship sink in your drink.” Price: a paltry $8.65. How could I not treat myself?

Holiday Travel Ideas and Advice

Over at the New York Times travel section, a pack of paper soaps for $5 (great for washing clothes on the road) is a brilliant idea — so brilliant I bought a stash.

And on Conde Nast Traveler’s “Daily Traveler,” the Rimowa Limbo Multiwheel hard-sided carry-on in midnight blue, boasting a breathtaking $875 price tag, would strain my budget — but boy, is it gorgeous.

The first item on CNN’s list grabbed me right off: an iPhone lens dial with three different lenses for $250. I’m thinking of it as an investment in my photo shooting ability (or lack thereof).

Perhaps there ought to be a guilt-relieving gift-buying ratio for the holiday season. What would you think is fair — say, after every five presents bought for someone else, we all deserve a little treat for ourselves?

It’s also only fair to say that the travel gift that got me most excited to give — to others! — is one I found right here on IndependentTraveler.com. (See 10 Unexpected Holiday Travel Gifts for the full list.) On Excitations.com, I can pick out fun tours, like kayaking in San Francisco Bay or feeding a big cat in Miami. Best of all? I can personalize each experience to meet the travel interests of my gift recipients.

Sure is a lot more fun than an Amazon gift card.

10 Tips for Holiday Travel

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

guiltIt’s an argument that can be all too familiar this time of year: Where should you spend the holidays? Whether your husband’s parents want you to trek cross country to be with them for Thanksgiving or you’d rather skip Christmas with the grandkids and take a Caribbean cruise instead, holiday travel decisions can be fraught with anxiety — and a side helping of guilt.

Christopher, who didn’t want his last name used for fear of upsetting his in laws, says that he and his wife have been dealing with onerous holiday expectations for their entire 19-year marriage. “It’s burned any joy of the holiday season right out of me,” he says.

Although the couple has tried to come up with a compromise — one year they’d pony up for expensive cross-country flights, the next year they’d stay home and celebrate alone — her family isn’t buying it, he says. And forget about taking a vacation with just the two of them during the holiday season. One year when they tried to make excuses, he says, the family decided, without asking, to come to their house instead.

“We have not been able to get to a point with her family where we have been able to break away to do stuff on our own,” he says. “Their point of view around Christmas is that they are going to steamroll you. You either hop on or you get crushed.”

Away from Home for the Holidays

Sometimes the guilt doesn’t come from your family; it’s self-inflicted. This year, I was going to go on a Christmas markets cruise through Europe with my husband over the holidays. When I told my parents about the plan, their silence spoke more than recriminations. I ended up moving the cruise to earlier in December — and inviting my dad.

Emily Harley-Reid threw off her own parental guilt one Thanksgiving and went to Machu Picchu, leaving her husband and son behind. “They LOVED having a guys’ weekend,” she said. (She did bring her mother on the adventure.)

Harley-Reid says that she has tried to get friends to break their own shackles and go in on a T-day mountain or beach rental. So far, she’s had no takers. “I just want to spend a few days bonding and relaxing with dear friends and immediate family instead of driving 1,100 miles in two days, often through snow and ice,” she says. “Everyone turns down the idea because of the massive guilt trips.”

What Not to Do When Traveling Over the Holidays

Has guilt ever influenced your holiday travel plans?

– written by Chris Gray Faust

busy winter highwaySanta Claus is coming to town — and so are nearly 92 million other travelers. Today, AAA released its annual holiday travel forecast, which predicts a very busy season this year. According to the report, about 91.9 million Americans will be traveling more than 50 miles from home — a 1.4 percent increase over last year’s numbers.

The good news? An active holiday travel season bodes well for the economy — and for the travel industry in particular. In a press release issued by the company, AAA Vice President Bill Sutherland said, “It’s a positive sign for the travel industry that so many Americans are planning to travel this holiday season, collectively contributing to the second-highest year-end holiday travel volume in the past ten years.” According to AAA, the holiday season spans from December 23 through January 2.

Now here’s the rather not-so-good news: if you’re hitting the road at the end of this month, you’ll be sharing planes, trains and roadways with 92 million fellow travelers. Stress levels will be high, and your chances of snagging an upgrade, a good parking space or a discounted plane ticket will be low.

But don’t panic just yet. You can find tips for avoiding crowds and surviving your end-of-year getaway in 10 Tips for Holiday Travel. Plus, learn what to do if you get bumped from a full flight in our Guide to Bumping and Overbooking.

Will you be one of the 92 million Americans in transit around the holidays this year? Take our poll!



– written by Caroline Costello

Paris snow winterEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: There are lots of super holiday gifts one can bestow on globetrotters, from travel gift cards to pet suitcases. Still, we wish we could whip out our credit cards and reserve a flight to an exciting destination for a special person or two on our lists — but we can’t. Or, at least, we can’t without stealing our loved one’s passport and requesting vacation days from his or her boss. All in all, it’s a bit rash to buy a flight for someone without any word of warning.

That’s not the case any longer. Aer Lingus has waived the name and itinerary change fees for flights booked by tomorrow, December 14. Purchase a flight from Boston, Chicago or New York to select European destinations, and you’ll have the option to make one change to the name on the ticket as well one change to the ticketed travel dates through the end of January. Tickets are valid for travel from January 1 through March 31, 2012.

It’s a fabulous gift idea: Present Mom with a flight to Paris, and let her pick her own travel dates! This deal is perfect for the holidays, but it’s also an excellent option for travelers who want to plan a European winter getaway but aren’t ready to commit to a set itinerary just yet.

The Catch: As we said, you may only make one change to the ticketholder’s name and one change to the travel dates for the flight. Further changes will incur a $210 fee each way. Additionally, if you change your dates and end up with a more expensive ticket than the one you originally purchased, you’ll have to pay the difference in fares.

The Competition: We haven’t seen another deal quite like this. But the next best thing is a travel gift card. Don’t miss this roundup of our favorite travel gift card deals.

Find more money-saving offers in our Airfare Deals.

– written by Caroline Costello

When I was 5 years old, I sat on Santa’s lap at the mall and told him I wanted a pony for Christmas. I can’t recall his exact response — I think it was closer to “Ha ha ha” than “Ho ho ho” — but, needless to say, I didn’t wake up to find a pony under the tree that Christmas morning. It never stopped me from dreaming.

Fast forward a few decades. This holiday season, I find my imagination running wild yet again — but now it’s turned to thoughts of travel. I’ve scoured the Web for five ultra-lavish gifts that any traveler would love to receive. The prices may be outlandish — try not to think about how many trips you could take for the price of each of these! — but hey, a girl can dream.

delta air linesPlane Tickets for Globetrotters
What traveler hasn’t dreamed of chucking it all and embarking on an around-the-world trip? Now even Groupon wants you to go. The daily deal site is offering a Jet Set Adventure from Delta Air Lines, Air France, KLM and Alitalia, which includes two around-the-world plane tickets for either $10,000 (economy class) or $20,000 (business class) — plus taxes and fees, of course. Your trip includes anywhere from 3 to 10 stopovers in destinations around the world. The airlines will even throw in a steamer trunk and a couple of safari hats.

henk travelfriendThe Ultimate Carry-On
Designed by a Dutch businessman who wanted to come up with the world’s best suitcase, the HENK TravelFriend pleases with its high-quality materials, sturdy retractable wheels and “lockers” for small valuables. Unlike most suitcases, it opens on both sides for easier access to your goodies. It’s also fully customizable: would you like your case lined with calfskin, horsehair or carbon fiber? Fortunately, the suitcase is carry-on size; imagine your teeth-gnashing if the airlines lost a bag that costs — wait for it — more than $20,000.

penguins antarcticaA Trek Through the Harshest Landscape on Earth
Anyone lacking an adventurous spirit (or an extremely high tolerance for cold) need not apply for this amazing polar expedition. The 18-day trip with luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent includes 69 miles of cross-country skiing and trekking across the vast frozen landscape of Antarctica, ending at the geographic South Pole. Sound appealing? You can still book a trip for this January, as long as you’ve got $57,985 lying around.

hasselblad cameraSpoil Your Favorite Shutterbug
Bad pictures, begone! If you find yourself unsatisfied with the photos taken by your old point-and-shoot, give yourself an upgrade (times a million) by picking up the Hasselblad H4D-60 60-Megapixel Digital SLR Camera. The list of specs on this professional-grade camera is about a mile long, and so is its price tag: $41,995. As of this writing, there’s a single review of the camera on Amazon.com, from a user who sold his condo and his car to pay for the thing. He may be living in a box on the street now, but at least he’s got a great camera.

villa yin phuket thailandA Private Villa in Thailand
De-stress after the holidays with a week or two in your very own luxury villa in Thailand. On members-only private sale site Jetsetter.com, you can book a stay at the 7,965-square-foot Villa Yin in Phuket, which offers panoramic views of the Andaman Sea from all four bedrooms and from the private infinity pool. Daily maid service and free Wi-Fi are included in the rates, which start at $4,250 a night in early January — with a minimum 14-night stay. (That adds up to a total of $59,500, in case you don’t have a calculator handy.) The villa sleeps eight.

Can’t afford anything on this wish list? Check out the more reasonably priced options in our 10 Unexpected Holiday Travel Gifts.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

gift cardGift cards are foolproof presents for the travelers who don’t fall into the “gadget,” “book” or “hilarious SkyMall purchase” categories of your holiday gift list. You buy the card. They book the excursion, hotel room or spa day, and send you contented Facebook status updates of thanks when their vacation comes around.

But here’s the best part: You get a little something, too. We’ve unearthed five travel gift card offers that sweeten the deal with discounted prices (hint: the amount on the card isn’t the amount you’ll have to pay), bonus gifts and other goodies.

Free $10 Gift Card with Best Western Travel Card
Receive a free $10 gift card with every $100 Best Western Travel Card you purchase. The $10 bonus card can be cashed in at the establishment of your choice (options include Amazon.com, Best Buy, Darden, Walmart and — naturally — Best Western). The Best Western Travel Cards can be loaded with several currencies (perfect for the continent-hopping jetsetter in your life) and are valid at Best Western hotels around the world.

Free $50 Hertz Voucher with Marriott Gift Card
They get no-cost accommodations. You get some cash knocked off the price of your next rental car. Receive a free $50 voucher to use toward any Hertz rental car with the purchase of a Marriott GiftCard worth $250 or more. Marriott GiftCards can be used for hotel stays, restaurant meals, spa services, golf and more at participating Marriott properties. Plus, if you’re a Marriott Rewards member, you’ll receive 10 rewards points for every card you purchase.

Get Deep Discounts with Costco Gift Cards
Costco.com sells legions of discounted gift cards for everything from gym memberships to movie theaters. And travel is no exception. The wholesaler offers cut-rate cards for hotel stays and excursions galore. Some of our favorites include $75 for a $100 BedandBreakfast.com gift card as well as Go Cards for several major U.S. cities. The Go Cards, which start at $59.99, offer free admission to a long list of attractions, as well as discounts at retail stores and restaurants. To get these offers, you have to be a card-carrying Costco member. (Annual memberships start at $55.)

$100 Spa Gift Card for $90
If you have someone on your list who’s traveling in North America soon, this gift will instantly upgrade his or her vacation — while simultaneously saving you money. For a limited time, Spa Week is selling $100 spa gift cards for just $89.99 each. You can purchase the cards in other denominations, too, and the more you spend, the more you save. Get a $50 gift card for $45, a $250 gift card for $225 or a $400 gift card for $360. You get the idea. The cards are valid at more than 4,500 spas in the U.S. and Canada.

10 Unique Holiday Gift Ideas


– written by Caroline Costello