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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Check out the stories you may have missed this week.

hotel sign


Mermaid Instructor? Canine Masseuse? The Oddest Hotel Jobs on Earth
Bloomberg takes a deep dive into the weirder side of hotels, highlighting the industry’s oddest jobs. This includes a sunset bagpiper at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, and the massage therapist for dogs at the Belmond Hotel Splendido in Portofino, Italy.

Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Finally Called Off with Mystery Unsolved
After nearly three years, the governments of Malaysia, Australia and China have given up the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, reports the Washington Post. The aircraft vanished mysteriously in March 2014, but despite a $150 million search, we have no more answers now than we did then about its final hours.

60 Years Since Publication of Famous Travel Guidebook
The Associated Press interviews Arthur Frommer, who revolutionized modern travel with the 1957 publication of “Europe on $5 a Day.” Discover why his book was so unique and which city Frommer can visit again and again.

15 of the Most Beautiful Places in Alaska
Don’t miss this droolworthy gallery of Alaska photos from Rough Guides — we guarantee it’ll get your wanderlust going.

The Mystery of American Airlines’ Ailing Flight Attendants
The Chicago Tribune investigates the controversy over the new uniforms at American Airlines, which numerous flight attendants have claimed are making them sick. So far there’s no scientific explanation for the rashes, sore throats, blisters and other ill effects that the flight attendants are suffering.

How to Plan Your Next Vacation with a Chatbot
The New York Times takes three mobile messaging apps — aka chatbots — for a test drive to see how useful they are in helping travelers find a flight or hotel using artificial intelligence. Spoiler alert: The results were mixed.

7 Stunning Natural Wonders in Asia
Is your bucket list just not long enough? Give this National Geographic piece a read. After viewing these stunning photos, you’ll be considering a trip to places like Mount Kelimutu in Indonesia or Jigoku Valley in Japan.

Air India Says Women-Only Seats for Comfort After Reported In-Flight Sex Attacks
Reuters reports that Air India will now reserve six seats on every flight for female passengers traveling alone. Although the move comes after multiple reports of women being sexually assaulted on Air India flights, the airline says it’s trying to offer solo female travelers more choice and comfort.

This week’s video is an offering from USA Today that went viral: a too-big-to-be-believed alligator in Florida.


The Most Bizarre Requests from Hotel Guests
12 Hotel Hacks That Will Save You Money

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Check out the stories you may have missed in the travel world this week.

airplane wing sunrise


MasterCard Could Share Your Height and Weight with Airlines, But Will It?
Skift reports on an eyebrow-raising new patent application from MasterCard that could affect how your data is shared with airlines. Because the credit card company has records of consumer purchases — including the sizes of shoes and clothing — it could theoretically let an airline know how large you are, allowing the carrier to avoid seating “two physically large strangers next to each other,” according to the patent.

Travel Is So Much Better Than It Was
It’s easy for travelers to find things to complain about — baggage fees, security lines, shrinking legroom — but this column from the National Review points out that we actually have it pretty good these days, thanks to new technology and innovative services such as Airbnb and Uber.

The Most Colorful Job in the World?
BBC offers a gorgeous photo essay about the workers who make mosaic tiles for the Great Mosque in Herat, Afghanistan.

Coming Innovations That Will Make Flying Economy (Mostly) Better
Wired reports on new trends in the air travel industry, from mood lighting and heated seats to more efficient security checkpoints and in-flight virtual reality.

Five Myths About Hotel Room Service
USA Today debunks a few common myths about room service. Did you know, for instance, that you might not have to tip (if the gratuity is already included on the bill)?

The 2017 Travel Forecast: Reduced Demand Could Result in Vacation Bargains
The Washington Post reports that many Americans aren’t planning to travel this coming year — which could lead to good deals for those who do want to hit the road.

How to Travel the World with No Money — by People Who Have Done It
The Guardian interviews three people who recently took ultra-budget trips that relied not on money but on the kindness of strangers. (Would you hitchhike for 72 days across South and Central America?) They share the good, bad and ugly from their trips.

This week’s video explains the math behind a frustrating problem for travelers: overbooked flights.


What to Do if Your Flight Is Overbooked
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Check out what you may have missed from around the travel world this week.

drone photo of bogata forest romania


20 Best Photos of 2016
The Dronestagram blog offers picks for the best drone photos of the past 12 months, featuring striking shots of roads, beaches and lavender fields from a unique bird’s-eye perspective.

Resolve to Be a Better Traveler (It’s Easier Than Losing Weight)
This piece from the San Francisco Chronicle offers up some advice — in the form of New Year’s resolutions — for travelers in 2017. Our favorite: “Put the camera/smartphone down. Sit, breathe and watch a foreign world go by.”

U.S. Government Collecting Social Media Information from Foreign Travelers
The Guardian reports that the U.S. government wants foreign visitors to reveal their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts when applying for a visa. It’s part of an effort to fight terrorism, though we can’t help but wonder whether a would-be terrorist would happily volunteer his or her incriminating accounts. (The social media info is not required in order to obtain a visa.)

Georgia’s Svan Song
Roads & Kingdoms profiles the little-known region of Svaneti, in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. The unique culture and religion of this region is endangered by economic decline and a lack of visitors.

Inside the Life of an Oyster Hotel Investigator
Ever wondered what it’s like to review and photograph hotels for a living? Our sister site, Oyster.com, offers an interview with one of its hotel investigators, who shares what an average day is like and reveals why it’s not as glamorous a job as it might sound.

The 10 Best Low-Cost Airlines in the World
Business Insider reveals the best low-cost carriers around the world, according to a recent Skytrax survey. The winner for the eighth year in a row? AirAsia. The only American carrier on the list, Virgin America, came in second.

Evicted Tenants Fight Back Against Airbnb With Detectives and Lawyers
Airbnb’s ongoing legal battle continues, Skift reports, with evicted tenants hiring detectives to prove that their former homes are now being used as short-term rentals. Opponents of Airbnb argue that the service is reducing cities’ supplies of affordable housing.

Asia’s Most Interesting Bazaar
The Time Travel Turtle blog’s colorful photos of this market in Kashgar, China, are a feast for the eyes.

This week’s video was shot in Rwanda and Uganda, and captures the region’s people, animals and landscapes. (Our favorite part? The gorillas.)


What’s Your New Year’s Travel Resolution?
Planning an African Safari

— written by Sarah Schlichter

For the second year in a row, one hotel chain’s rewards program has been chosen as the provider of the best overall benefits to travelers.

hotel reception


Wyndham Rewards is the top overall hotel rewards program, according to a study by WalletHub, a website that provides credit advice to consumers. Wyndham’s program appeals just as much to those who travel infrequently as it does to those who travel a lot, and it ranked highly for its ease of achieving top membership status, number of hotels where rewards can be used and minimal blackout dates, among other attributes.

WalletHub pitted 12 hotel rewards programs against one other, examining 21 key metrics, including point values, blackout dates, brand exclusions and expiration policies. The top 10 brands, in order:

1. Wyndham Rewards
2. Best Western Rewards
3. Marriott Rewards
4. Club Carlson
5. La Quinta Returns
6. Hyatt Gold Passport
7. Drury Gold Key Club
8. Hilton HHonors
9. Choice Privileges
10. The Ritz-Carlton Rewards

La Quinta Returns was deemed to offer the best rewards value, offering up to $14.17 in rewards value for every $100 the hotel guest spends. Meanwhile, Best Western is the only brand among the 12 whose points do not expire if your account stays inactive for a while. The majority of hotel rewards points expire after 18 to 24 months of inactivity.

The study also found that the majority of the 12 brands have maintained or exceeded their programs’ value this year vs. last year.

“I think the typical consumer generally overvalues the benefits of hotel rewards program membership and underestimates the commitment required to obtain those benefits,” Professor Sung H. Ham of George Washington University wrote as part of the study.

Receiving free nights in a hotel is admittedly attractive, Ham said, but it requires a big commitment from the consumer. “Even if consumers are motivated to achieve the free night, consumers may still overvalue the rewards that can be obtained from being loyal,” Ham said. “Loyal consumers are less likely to engage in price comparisons and may ultimately end up paying more for each stay to earn the free night award.”

That being said, being a part of a hotel loyalty program can often provide non-monetary benefits, such as more personalized service, says Professor Lei Huang of the State University of New York at Fredonia.

Are you a member of a hotel rewards program?

7 Smart Reasons to Join a Hotel Rewards Program
Smart Tactics to Get More from Your Hotel Points
The Trouble with Hotel Reward Programs

–written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Read up on the news and stories you may have missed this week from around the travel world.

travelers on segways


The Inventions That Ruined Travel
Have a laugh over this tongue-in-cheek list of travel abominations from the Telegraph, featuring things like Segways, wax museums and “ride-on” suitcases. Our favorite is the section on selfie sticks, or “this narcissistic weapon of Satan.”

Otherworldly Silence
Warning: After clicking through this stunning Maptia photo essay about Antarctica, you may find yourself researching trips to the world’s most remote continent.

From Grand Hotel to Microhotel: How Your Stay Has Changed in 200 Years
Conde Nast Traveler surveys two centuries of hotel trends, starting with the grand properties that sprang up in 19th-century Europe and extending through the chain hotels of the early 20th century and the hip boutiques of the 1980s and 1990s. The author even offers a vision of what hotels might look like in the future.

29 Travel Hacks That Even Frequent Fliers Don’t Know
Insider rounds up some clever tips that go beyond the usual travel advice, including grabbing a cab in your airport’s departure zone instead of at arrivals and keeping a small waterproof bag packed at all times with necessary chargers and cables.

Fake Service Animals and Why Airline Passengers Are Upset
South Florida’s Sun Sentinel reports on a growing trend: the rise in service and emotional support animals on planes. Some travelers are abusing the laws requiring airlines to accept service animals by pretending that their pets are traveling with them for emotional support when they’re really just trying to evade the rules and fees for bringing a pet onboard.

5 Ways Travel for Frequent Fliers Got Worse in 2016
Skift offers a glum look at the air travel landscape, which in 2016 featured rising admission fees to airline lounges and the advent of “basic economy” fares.

12 Poignant Images of Tribal Peoples Around the World
Rough Guides showcases the photos that will appear in the 2017 calendar of Survival International, an advocacy group for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world. These images capture these people’s human dignity and endangered lifestyle.

This week’s video is a mesmerizing peek into the Kyushu region of Japan.


12 Best Japan Experiences
18 Best Airport Hacks

— written by Sarah Schlichter

If your desired travel experience includes not spending a lot of money and being able to interact with locals, then Homestay.com is a lodging option you’ll want to consider. Launched in 2013, Dublin-based Homestay.com allows you to book a room in a local’s home in more than 150 countries. Hosts may take you on a tour of their city, cook you a meal or simply engage in breakfast conversation and provide touring advice. Rates are surprisingly low — much lower than booking a room in someone’s home through Airbnb, for example.

alan clarke homestay ceo


We chatted with Homestay.com CEO Alan Clarke about what to expect from a stay at one of the 50,000 host properties around the world.

IndependentTraveler.com: The social interaction and insider knowledge of a destination are obvious benefits of Homestay.com. What are some benefits that might not be apparent to a new user?
Alan Clarke:
It’s a great budget alternative to hotels and less crowded than hostels — and you get your own private room, not a dorm. Breakfast is included in the price and often there are other perks too: Many hosts are happy to throw in a pick-up service from the airport, laundry service, shared dinners, storing of luggage, use of the kitchen or a bicycle and more.

IT: Who tends to use this type of lodging?
AC:
Solo travelers account for more than 60 percent of the bookings. It’s ideal for anyone traveling alone who wants to stay with a local in their home and share a meal or hang out. It can help you to feel safer and more confident about going somewhere you’ve never been before.

People on holiday can enjoy a culturally immersive experience, while those traveling for business can return to a friendly face at the end of a busy day instead of an empty hotel room. And 40 percent of the guests booking on Homestay.com are students, many of whom need a home [away] from home for an extended period of time.

Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo

IT: Homestay costs are surprisingly affordable. With the advent of Airbnb, Sonder, VRBO and other sites, surely you could raise your rates. Why have you kept them so low?
AC:
It’s up to the hosts to set their own prices. We help them to understand the need to be competitive and educate them on how to adjust their rates for seasonality or special events. However, for many of the hosts on Homestay.com it’s as much about the people they’ll meet as it is about the extra revenue they’ll earn.

IT: How do you ensure that people stay safe when using a homestay? Have you ever had safety incidents?
AC:
We encourage hosts and guests to verify their ID when signing up. It’s not compulsory, but we do recommend it. We work with a third-party provider who independently verifies the validity of the IDs. Prior to setting our hosts live for bookings our team checks the listing to ensure its authenticity.

When a guest wants to book they have the opportunity to send messages back and forth to the host, allowing them to build trust and rapport prior to making a booking. We also offer a custom video chat as part of the booking process.

And we have a customer service team on hand seven days a week to help, should an issue arise. With thousands of guest reviews, 90 percent of them five star, I can assure you that we place customer satisfaction and safety at the top of our list of priorities.

colorful bedroom


IT: Tell us about one of the most interesting homestay experiences you’ve had.
AC:
While travelling in Italy I stayed with an amazing host in Florence — really close to the Ponte Vecchio. She was a certified tour guide with a passion for traditional Tuscan cooking, so you can imagine how most of my days were spent!

IT: What do you look for in a host?
AC:
I’m a pretty independent traveler so for me the host that best suits my needs is someone who will mostly leave me to my own devices but is also happy to share their tips and advice if I need it. Each guest and host is different in terms of the level of interaction they want from the experience. That’s why we encourage our guests and hosts to communicate as much as possible during and after the booking process.

IT: What are some of your favorite destinations around the world?
AC:
I’ve been lucky to visit many amazing places: the Base Camp of Everest, Victoria Falls in Zambia, Zanzibar, Goa, the Great Wall in China, Copacabana, Golden Gate Park, Lake Baikal in Siberia, the pubs of London, the restaurants of Paris, the cafes of Melbourne.

I think what makes me most excited about any trip is the uniqueness that each destination has to offer, which for me is a combination of everything from culture to people to architecture and landscape. Perhaps two that stand out are Biarritz in France and Kerry in Ireland. Both are coastal, beautiful locations, with deep local culture and great food and people.

IT: And where are you going next?
AC:
A Christmas market in Europe with my family — our first trip abroad with our first child. Very exciting!

Check out more travel interviews!

Homestays and Farmstays
Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

–interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

The delightful cottage I rented through Airbnb last month seemed to have all right elements to provide a restful long weekend — a pretty location, plenty of space to spread out, a well-appointed kitchen. But my two-night stay ended up being less than restful because I barely slept. The bed was so squeaky that every time I rolled over, the metallic oinks and squeals would wake me up.

bedroom


I love that Airbnb, Home Away, VRBO and other vacation rental property websites exist, providing alternatives to hotels. But one of the downsides is the lack of consistent standards.

A new travel site called Sonder aims to correct that.

Like the other vacation rental sites, Sonder allows you to book individually owned private properties by the night. But Sonder requires that the owners meet a checklist of standards before they can be members and offer their “hometels” for rent. In fact, there are 237 items on Sonder’s checklist.

Vacation Rentals: A Traveler’s Guide

Owners must agree to have homes professionally cleaned after each stay. All properties provide consistent amenities, including speedy Wi-Fi, hotel-like bath products and kitchen essentials, including coffee and tea. And bookings are confirmed instantly; no need to wait around for the homeowner to respond, keeping your vacation plans in limbo until he or she decides whether to accept your booking. Units must be accessible via lockbox and key code; no need to coordinate with the owner to hand off a key.

The springy bed I slept on would never pass Sonder’s test — the company states that all beds are comfortable and decked out with luxury hotel-style linens.

The founders of Sonder said they came up with the idea after they arrived at a rental apartment in San Francisco. After waiting endlessly for the owner to call them back to let them know where to find the house key, they went into the apartment, only to find dog hair all over the furniture and half-eaten food in the fridge.

Right now, Sonder is only available in eight cities in the United States and Canada — Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, San Diego, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal — and others will be added soon. Even though the West Virginia cottage I rented was lacking in comfort, such a rural destination isn’t even available through Sonder. So there are tradeoffs.

For city properties, rates tend to be comparable to Airbnb, but you’ll have fewer options. For example, I searched for a $200-or-less private home in Boston for a mid-December stay. Airbnb turned up 279 properties and Sonder just 11.

If you’re seeking a private space in a city, Sonder is a great alternative to other rental sites and hotels. But for now, you’ll need to stick with the other websites if you’re seeking non-urban rentals.

15 Things You Don’t Know About Vacation Rentals
7 Airbnb Problems and How to Solve Them

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Check out what you may have missed this week from around the travel world.

brownstones in greenwich village new york


Airbnb Sues Over New Law Regulating New York Rentals
Airbnb continues to face challenges in New York after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill imposing major fines to hosts who illegally rent out their homes or apartments, reports the New York Times. Proponents of the law are trying to protect affordable housing by preventing people from renting out places to short-term tourists. Airbnb has filed a lawsuit to challenge the new law.

I’ve Been Taking Business Trips for More Than a Decade — Here Are 8 of My Best Travel Tips
A longtime business traveler shares her smartest tips with Business Insider, including using airport restaurants for free Wi-Fi and snagging free bottled water from hotel gyms.

The Secret Behind Italy’s Rarest Pasta
BBC travels to the island of Sardinia to see how su filindeu — the world’s rarest pasta — is made. Only three women on the planet know the time-intensive process.

Poverty as a Tourism Attraction: Can Travel to a Developing Country Really Make a Difference?
Australian travel website Traveller delves into the experience of “poverty tourism,” in which wealthy tourists come to town for a few hours and “want to ‘fix’ disadvantage with a few giveaway pencils and a photo with the kids.” The author is uncomfortable with the concept but finds that this type of tourism isn’t entirely without merit.

Here Comes a Wave of Change for Cuba
A National Geographic writer hops aboard the first U.S. cruise ship to visit Cuba in nearly 40 years and asks the locals how they feel about the incoming wave of American tourists.

Air Horse One: This Airline Is Strictly for the Animals
Every wondered how racehorses travel to the Kentucky Derby and other major events? USA Today takes us inside Air Horse One, a plane designed specifically to carry animals. Fun fact: The plane ascends and descends more gently than regular commercial flights to avoid startling or jostling the horses.

Airbus Offers a Peek at Its Flying Taxi
Anyone who’s ever sat in a traffic jam has wished they could simply fly their car over the mess — and CNN reports that Airbus is working on technology that could someday let us do just that. The “pilotless passenger aircraft” would take off and land vertically, with no need for a runway.

This week’s video offers a look at one of France’s most incredible tourist sites: Mont St-Michel.

A Medieval Abbey Trapped by Tides and Time from Great Big Story on Vimeo.


Voluntourism: Does It Really Help?
Photos: A Walking Tour of Old Havana

— written by Sarah Schlichter

One of the pleasures of staying in a hotel is enjoying all the little luxuries that come with your room — slipping into a bathrobe or pair of slippers, trying out a new brand of body lotion. But for many frequent travelers hotel amenities leave a little to be desired, even at expensive properties.

hotel toiletries


Cecilia Freeman, a member of the IndependentTraveler.com community team, recently found herself disappointed by the in-room coffee at a Seattle hotel for which she paid $275 a night. “The coffee was Starbucks, but they stocked these generic fake sugar and creamer packets with a useless napkin and a stirry straw,” she told me. “Every time I travel and stay in any level of hotel, I always get the same lame amenity pack for the coffee. I wondered if Starbucks would be happy its coffee was accompanied by this awful generic stuff.”

It spurred her to look at other common hotel amenities with a more critical eye: “Shower caps? Who uses those? Shoeshine sponges? The list goes on … the whole amenity package for all hotels needs a redo.”

In fairness, I remember one occasion several years back when I did use a hotel shower cap — but that’s one time out of hundreds of hotel stays. Why don’t hotels cut some of these rarely used amenities and offer free Wi-Fi instead? In an informal survey a few years back, we discovered that it was the hotel amenity travelers want most.

I reached out to a couple of other well-traveled colleagues to get their perspective on hotel amenities. Brittany Chrusciel, an associate editor for IndependentTraveler.com’s sister site, Cruise Critic, wants to ban bar soap at the sink. “I don’t mind a bar in the shower, but I’d much rather have liquid soap for hand washing,” she said. “Half the time there’s no soap dish, so the bar slithers all over the sink and makes a mess. Plus, it’s a waste when you only use it for a day or two. A hand soap dispenser is so much neater and more convenient.”

My own biggest pet peeve? Hotels that only offer a single pillow on each side of a bed, with no extras in the closet. Cruise Critic senior editor Chris Gray Faust agreed: “I like having a fortress of pillows.”

There are some hotel amenities we love, including bottled water (preferably free), hypoallergenic pillows, facewash and cotton swabs. Best of all: a little note that says “Forgot something? Call the front desk” with an offer to supply things like toothbrushes, toothpaste or razors.

9 Ways to Make Your Hotel Room More Comfortable
33 Ways to Sleep Better at a Hotel

What are your favorite and least favorite hotel amenities?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

There’s a new hotel site for travelers who want to do good while exploring the world: KindTraveler.com. Launched in summer 2016, the site has partnered with hotels in the U.S., the Caribbean and Mexico to encourage travelers to donate to charity in exchange for a discounted nightly rate.

kind traveler screenshot


Plug in your travel dates, and you’ll get a list of available hotels and rates. Click on one, and you’ll see how much of a discount you can get for a donation of $10 a night to charity. For a February stay at the upscale 1 Hotel South Beach in Miami, I was offered a $95 discount per night with my donation, taking the rate from $731/night to $636/night. (If you book directly on the hotel’s website without making a donation through Kind Traveler, the lowest available rate is $640 a night — so the savings aren’t necessarily as large as they might appear.)

At the James Chicago, a $10/night donation took the price from $149 to $124 per night for my February dates. (On the hotel’s website, the lowest available rate was $130 a night.)

When you’re ready to book, you can select the hotel’s recommended charity or choose your own. The site’s causes fall into 10 categories, such as wildlife, human rights, environment, education, health and disaster relief. Charities within these categories include the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Arbor Day Foundation, among others. You can pay for your booking with a credit card or use PayPal.

The site’s offerings are limited so far, with fewer than two dozen hotels, most of which appear to cost more than $200 a night. The properties are mostly boutique hotels and have been vetted for “Kind Factors” such as eco-friendly toiletries, recycling programs and donations to their local communities.

While the site’s offerings are too limited to benefit most travelers right now, the idea is a worthy one, and we’ll be keeping an eye on the site as it expands. Check it out yourself at KindTraveler.com.

Voluntourism: Does It Really Help?
33 Ways to Sleep Better at a Hotel

— written by Sarah Schlichter