Explore. Experience. Engage.

Home Travel Tips Travel Deals Destinations Trip Reviews Blog
The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

peace for parisHere’s another edition of our favorite travel stories of the week. (If you missed the first edition last week, you can check it out here.)

Fodor’s Stands with Paris
In this moving post, the editor-in-chief of Fodor’s explains why she isn’t planning to cancel her holiday trip to Paris next month, even after the recent terrorist attacks.

No More International Roaming Charges? Here’s How
Conde Nast Traveler offers good news for travelers who like to stay connected: Verizon is now allowing customers to pay between $2 and $10 per day to use their phones abroad the same way they do in the United States, without worrying about expensive roaming charges. (The article also includes suggestions for those who use different cell phone carriers.)

United Airlines Might Be the First Brand to Actually Drop a ‘Hidden’ Flying Fee
Here’s more welcome news on the fee front, this time from Travel + Leisure, which reports that United Airlines recently removed its rebooking fee. Passengers used to have to pay $50 to change their flight due to an unplanned event such as illness. Let’s hope more airlines follow suit.

Transparent Airplane Walls May Be in Air Travel’s Not-So-Distant Future
Fortune reports that Airbus is planning some revolutionary changes to the in-flight experience, including transparent airplane walls that will give new meaning to the phrase “window seat.” (If you’re afraid of heights, you’ll be able to use an opaque hologram to block the view.) Other potential changes: seats that adjust to your body size and themed “zones” where you can play games or interact with other passengers.

Starwood Devotees Greet Marriott Merger With Dread and Anger
Marriott International announced Monday that it will acquire Starwood Hotels & Resorts (which includes Sheraton, W, Le Meriden, Westin and several other chains). In this piece from the New York Times, frequent Starwood guests express their concerns about what will happen to their loyalty points and whether or not they’ll continue to enjoy the personalized service they’re used to after the merger.

Finally, have a laugh at this video of an Irishman on vacation in Las Vegas, who didn’t quite understand which way to point the GoPro camera he borrowed from his son. Instead of capturing the sights around town, he ended up filming his own face all over Sin City. Here’s the footage, spliced together (with a little musical embellishment) by his son Evan:

— written by Sarah Schlichter

For travelers looking to explore beyond planet Earth, there’s a new frontier in sight. A hotel in Zurich has just opened a brand-new Space Suite designed to resemble a space station, reports CNN.

The five-star Kameha Grand Zurich hired German artist Michael Najjar to design the suite, which features a “floating” bed, photos of astronauts, spotlights that resemble rocket engines and a library of space-themed books and films. An automated female voice inspired by the film “Dark Star” greets guests as they enter. You can even tune into NASA TV or a live stream from the International Space Station.

The video below offers a look around the suite:

A stay on the space station — er, in the Space Suite — doesn’t come cheap, starting at 1845 Swiss francs a night (approximately $1,858 USD) for a package that includes accommodations, breakfast, “space amenities” and an invitation to meet the designer of the suite. But perhaps the coolest inclusion is the opportunity to try an Airbus A320 flight simulator for an hour, as well as take a turn skydiving inside a vertical wind tunnel.

Photos: 10 Best Switzerland Experiences

It’s about as close to space as you can get without signing up for a trip with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which hopes to someday bring ordinary humans into space. (Ordinary humans who can afford the $250,000 price tag, that is.)

Would you want to stay in the Space Suite?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

no smoking hotel roomBaggage fees at the airport. Endless pitches for upgrades and insurance at the car rental counter. Resort fees and minibar charges at the hotel. Extra fees are an irritating but inescapable part of every trip — and now there’s a new one to worry about.

Skift reports that the Bellagio Las Vegas is charging $30 per night to guarantee your choice of a smoking or non-smoking room. (Other options this fee will ensure you: a high or low floor, a room near the elevator or with a pool view, or a room that does or does not connect with the one beside it.)

It’s one thing to charge extra for something like a pool view or a connecting room; these could be considered perks or upgrades. But a non-smoking room? For travelers with asthma, allergies or other breathing issues, this isn’t a preference — it’s a necessity.

This policy doesn’t favor smokers either. Skift points out that if they aren’t willing to shell out extra for a smoking room guarantee but then get caught lighting up in a non-smoking room, they’ll be hit with a $250 penalty. This type of charge is actually pretty common; many hotels want to avoid the inconvenience of deep-cleaning a room to remove the cigarette stench, and the hefty penalty serves as a deterrent. So why would the Bellagio force guests to pay extra to get into the type of room in which they belong?

Here’s hoping this isn’t a trend that catches fire (pun intended!) across the hotel industry.

Hidden Hotel Fees

Would you pay an extra fee to guarantee a smoking or non-smoking room?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

paris apartment buildingAirbnb is the latest darling of the lodging industry, renting attractive and affordable flats, houses and spare rooms in destinations all over the world. (You can count us among its fans!) But over the past few years it’s also faced some legal challenges. Recently officials in Paris raided nearly 2,000 rentals suspected to be illegal rentals, according to Road Warrior Voices; they discovered 101 violations.

Paris is one of several cities — including New York and San Francisco — that place restrictions on short-term rentals in an attempt to preserve the housing supply for their own residents. As a general rule, it’s legal in most cities to offer up a spare room as long as you’re present during your guest’s stay; what draws the ire of city governments is when hosts rent out unoccupied apartments or homes on a short-term basis when those could be used instead to provide housing for locals.

That hasn’t stopped droves of eager hosts from listing their properties and risking possible fines; there are currently more than 1,000 listings on Airbnb in each of the three cities mentioned above. (Worth noting: While Airbnb has gotten most of the notoriety for its recent legal battles, countless other vacation rental sites such as HomeAway and VRBO also have similar, potentially problematic listings.)

As a potential guest, are crackdowns such as the recent ones in Paris something you need to worry about? In Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals, Ed Hewitt notes, “In most cases, the law does not consider the traveler the offender — rather it considers the host the offender — so you are mostly in the clear. That won’t help if you experience a raid in the middle of your stay, however, or if you are subject to a more prosaic ejection, such as by the landlord — or even if you get the stink eye and a dressing down from unhappy neighbors.”

Hewitt goes on to offer numerous tips for how to protect yourself, including questioning your host about legal issues before your stay and researching a few nearby hotels to which you could retreat if the worst happens.

Vacation Rentals: A Traveler’s Guide

Personally, such crackdowns wouldn’t stop me from booking with Airbnb — though I might elect not to do it in Paris. What about you?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

two hands on a brown suitcaseYou thought he was “the one” — you hiked Machu Picchu together, toured South America like two outlaws in love — and now it’s ended in a flurry of badly translated Spanish insults and empty wine bottles. Time to get away, you think — far away. A steal at roughly $83 per night, the Mitsui Garden Yotsuya hotel in Tokyo, Japan, is offering a crying hotel package specifically for female guests. Complete with “luxury tissues” and sappy films encouraging you to use them, the package offers rooms just for single women to bawl their eyes out as well as makeup remover and face masks to make you look like the cryfest never happened. If it couldn’t get any more Japanese, manga comic (aren’t we supposed to be crying here?) books are also included in your hotel room. Perfect way to pore over a break-up in peace.

Back from Tokyo and ready to get back on your feet — literally — a girlfriend’s getaway is the answer to feeling yourself again with some empowerment a la estrogen. The twist? Along with brunch and spa treatments, this girls’ getaway package comes with a geocaching adventure in the Santa Fe mountains. Hunting for charms in the wiles of New Mexico, you’re also hunting for your purpose.

6 Lies Your Hotel Might Tell You

After the inevitable soul searching that comes with being in the desert, you realize your passion in life would be to start a family. You find someone and fall in love (yes, it’s that easy). You could book a strangely elaborate wedding package, but you choose a private ceremony instead. To celebrate your anniversary (and knowing you had to unexpectedly cancel your northern lights honeymoon the year before), you book a stay at the ICEHOTEL in Sweden, which offers a special hotel package that emulates the dreamy atmospheric colors of the northern lights in your hotel room. Snuggling close (it’s pretty chilly in a hotel made of ice) and watching the swirling lights above is pure magic.

Which is why a few months later, you’re planning your babymoon. Yes, these vacations to celebrate the imminent arrival of your much-awaited family are popular enough to warrant their own hotel packages. At the Wauwinet in Nantucket, Massachusetts, expectant mothers and fathers are invited to wind down with a babymoon package, from $635, that includes a two-night stay, spa treatments and even a blue and pink cigar (because cigars and wellness retreats go hand in hand). The stuffed animal for your newborn is a cute gesture, but the White Elephant brand name is a bit unfortunate.

Years have gone by, and the time, money and energy to travel have escaped you for too long. Knowing that your idea of romance these days is take-out and a marathon of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” the Breaking Bad hotel package at Heritage Hotels & Resorts in Albuquerque, NM, is the perfect chance to affirm your love for television … and each other. Your gift bag will include show-themed swag like stickers and posters; bath salts and seasoning salts; themed drinks; “crystal meth” candy; 15 percent off at local shops, restaurants and galleries; free Wi-Fi and optional tours. Short of “Better Call Saul,” this is as close as you’ll get to the real thing these days. As for love, nearby Santa Fe is where it all began — when you decided you wanted your family while geocaching in the mountains, and when you realized travel is truly transformative (and that there might be more to strange hotel packages at second glance).

More Wacky Hotel Packages

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

days inn dirty hotelAfter a week in Florida for a travel conference, my return flight to the Northeast was pushed back by 24 hours due to a snowstorm. Spending an extra day in the sunny weather certainly wasn’t cause for complaint, so I embraced the delay by visiting family and making my way to Universal Studios. But somewhere in between was the stuff of nightmares.

The logistics of finding a same-day hotel are irritating enough, but trying to do it in a busy resort town like Orlando — during spring break, when everyone else has made arrangements months in advance — is even worse. The result? The top five hotels near Universal were all full when I called. Then I tried the HotelTonight app but was disappointed by what appeared to be unreasonably high prices and limited availability, so I figured I’d try the next town over. Tired, grumpy and hoping to offset the hundreds of dollars I’d spend the following day to drink butterbeer in the presence of other Harry Potter-obsessed Muggles, I Googled “cheap hotels near Altamonte Springs.” Big mistake.

Finding Hotel Rooms: No Vacancy? No Problem

I was surprised to find a line of cars waiting at the front entrance to the Days Inn when I arrived. Confused, I parked and grabbed my suitcase, figuring I’d head to the lobby to check in. What greeted me were two locked doors, a sign that read “Lobby doors locked after 9 p.m. Use intercom” and a line of annoyed people standing in front of what looked like a window from which you’d order ice cream after a round of mini-golf. It took nearly 40 minutes to check in and finally get my key.

Once in the room, my first order of business was to use the facilities. Or at least that was my intention until I turned on the light and sent a couple of roaches frantically scurrying away. I screamed, jumped three feet in the air and then made quick work of them with the sole of my shoe and some tissues. When my pulse returned to normal, I scoured the bathroom for any remaining stragglers and sat down to use the toilet — which I quickly discovered wasn’t attached to the floor. (In all fairness, someone had tried to fix it several times, as was evident from about two inches of caulking surrounding its base.)

The one mercy was that I didn’t spot any bed bugs — but mildew, more roaches, dirty sheets (which were inside-out and adorned with someone else’s hair), a slashed mattress and stained, threadbare towels had me on the phone for an hour, calling nine different area hotels with the hope of getting the heck out of there. No luck. Everything was full, and sweating to death in the car overnight wasn’t an option.

How to Find a Clean Hotel Room

Ultimately, I left every single light on to scare off the roaches and dozed for a few minutes here and there, but it was the single worst night of sleep I’ve had in a long time. Possibly ever. As a frequent traveler, I’ve stayed in many hotels — everything from one-star to five-star — and I’ve never encountered a room so filthy. However, I have nobody to blame but myself … and perhaps the roaches that took up residence in the space I paid for.

At the time, I was proud of scoring a room for $120. Right now, what I’m not so proud of was my failure to consider anything but price. In fact, as someone who’s worked for a TripAdvisor company for quite some time, I’m downright ashamed.

Moral of the story: Always, always, always research. See what others have to say. If the price is abnormally low, there’s probably a reason. If a hotel has availability in a town where accommodations are otherwise booked solid, turn around and sprint in the other direction, no matter how desperate you are. It’s cliche, but you get what you pay for; don’t let an extra hundred dollars make the difference between loving and hating your vacation.

The 10 Worst Hotel Horror Stories

Have you ever found yourself stuck at a nightmare hotel?

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.

bedroomI’m by no means a hotel snob. Give me a fair rate, a clean room and a comfortable bed, and I’m happy; throw in free breakfast (no matter how basic) and free Wi-Fi, and I’m over the moon. Alternative lodging tends to be more my thing — hostels when I was a carefree backpacker, tents for outdoorsy adventures and vacation rentals for family gatherings.

It’s no surprise then that I loved my first Airbnb stay. The concept is simple: Book space in someone’s home (a room, a bed, a guesthouse) for — hopefully — less than the cost of a standard hotel. We tried it out on a recent trip to see family in Los Angeles, and it was a much better choice than the hotel we were considering. Based on that experience, here are five reasons why Airbnb might be better than a hotel.

Location: We wanted to be close to my brother’s home, but the nearest hotels were a few miles away and quite pricey. When we turned to Airbnb, we found a rental located just three blocks — walking distance! — from his house in the same residential neighborhood. Because Airbnb properties can be anywhere, you’re not limited to business districts and busy boulevards — great if you want something off the beaten path or closer to atypical attractions (like family).

Space: For $200+ a night, my family of four could have shared one room in a hotel, forcing the adults to sit in the dark after 8:30 p.m. bedtimes, and relegating early riser babies (and their grudging grownup companions) to play in the bathroom with the door closed at 6:45 a.m. For a much lower rate, we instead booked a 1,000-square-foot, two-floor guesthouse. After putting the children to sleep upstairs, my husband and I hung out in the downstairs living space, kicking back on the L-shaped couch or snacking at the kitchen table, lights ablaze.

Amenities: So we didn’t get free breakfast with Airbnb. We did get free Wi-Fi, cookies, fruit and bottled water. We also were invited to use our hosts’ patio, pool and hot tub, and the art supplies in the crafts area of their guesthouse. My son and nephew had a rousing dance party listening to our hosts’ CDs on the upstairs stereo. My guess is you won’t get the same niceties renting out a bed in someone’s apartment, but you do benefit from being a guest in someone’s home, rather than a customer in someone’s corporate brand.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

Flexibility: Instead of worrying about strict check-in and check-out times that might interfere with naptime or force us out of our digs too early, we had the pleasure of working out arrangements that suited both our hosts and us. They had an outing planned the day we arrived, so they left a key for us to come at our leisure; when asked about check-out, their response was essentially “whenever.” Our last day was street cleaning day with a two-hour parking window on the other side; our host not only made sure we knew the rules, but let us park in his driveway so we wouldn’t have to keep moving our car.

Human Contact: I don’t often strike up conversations with the hotel check-in staff (other than to complain about my key card not working or the lack of a porta-crib), but we ran into our hosts twice and chatted pleasantly with them. Certainly, your experience will be much more social if you’re actually staying in your host’s home with them, rather than in a detached guesthouse, but either way it’s a fun way to meet people and learn about local culture.

That isn’t to say Airbnb doesn’t have its drawbacks. While our stay was wonderful, there’s a lot more room for properties to be less ideal than advertised, for hosts to cancel your reservation due to their personal needs, and for personality conflicts to detract from a stay with heavy interaction between you and your hosts (or additional guests). My colleague had an awkward first Airbnb stay, and my in-laws were a bit disappointed to learn they weren’t allowed to have a glass of wine on the verandah at their host’s place, due to a “no alcohol” policy not clearly delineated in the Airbnb listing. Not to mention that certain cities are questioning the legality of Airbnb stays in the first place.

But if you’re looking for accommodations that don’t fit the typical hotel bill, give it a try. At best, you’ll find just what you need at the right price; at worst, it’ll be a funny story a few years down the road (and you can soothe your soul by writing a biting review).

–written by Erica Silverstein

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

In honor of Thanksgiving, this week’s toss-up offers a choice of two travel scenarios to give thanks for.

Would you feel more grateful for …

… an entire row to yourself on a long-haul flight, or …

airplane seats

… an upgrade to a suite at your hotel?

hotel suite

If you can’t afford a seat in business or first class, having a row to yourself in coach can be the next best thing, especially on a lengthy overnight flight. But is that better than getting an unexpected upgrade to a roomy suite at your hotel?

How to Get the Best Hotel Room

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Some branding partnerships are questionable — Justin Bieber and perfume, Taco Bell and Doritos — but Pantone’s decision to create a hotel in Brussels just makes sense. Pantone, considered a leading authority on color, built its Belgian hotel in 2010 and as we read up in this post on Fast Company magazine’s website, the rooms are, well, colorful.

pantone room

The Pantone Hotel was designed by architect Olivier Hannaert and decorated by interior designer Michel Penneman. The design is minimalist, but the touches of color extend from a curated photo series for each of the 59 rooms by Belgian photographer Victor Levy to coffee cups, bicycles, even the toilet paper. Stretches of hallway may be tangerine, and here, accent blankets are always intentional.

pantone hotel

9 Amazing Upscale Hostels

toilet paper at Pantone hotel

Part of a larger concept for the company known as Pantone Universe, the hotel is just part of the color swatch experts’ takeover of all things under the rainbow. A color of the year has been selected annually since 2000, and in a partnership with Sephora, a makeup line is created to play up the shade of the year. (You only have one more month to bathe in radiant orchid, or Pantone color 18-3224, before 2015 washes it away.) Online, the number of Pantone-related products colors the spectrum — if you need to brighten your day, visit their website. We’re not sure if the concept will ever become a chain, but if you’re in Brussels and want to experiment with how color might change your mood, the Pantone Hotel has a very specific number and letter for that.

6 More Sweet Hotels in Brussels

breakfast at Pantone hotel

Inspired by Pantone’s imaginative entry into hospitality, which other brands or products would you like to see with overnight accommodations? I think an [insert your favorite brand of coffee here] hotel would allow guests to at least be caffeinated, if not well rested. Share your ideas in the comments.

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

red wire cut from computerToo many users sharing the network, thick walls, incorrect settings — these may all be reasons you’ve concocted to explain your horrible Internet signal or poor cell phone reception during your latest hotel stay. But did the thought ever cross your mind that it was sabotage?

According to an article from CNN, the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, a Marriott property in Nashville, intentionally blocked guests from accessing their own personal Wi-Fi networks, forcing them to spend hundreds in order to use the hotel’s wireless Internet. Luckily the FCC got the signal loud and clear — and fined Marriott $600,000. The company will also have to file compliance plans with the commission every three months for the next three years. Federal law prohibits interference with cellular, GPS or wireless networks; according to the FCC, this is the first time a hotel property has been investigated for blocking guests’ Wi-Fi, but begs the question of whether other hotels aren’t guilty of the same practice.

In this case, Marriott employees used the hotel’s Wi-Fi system to block personal hot spots. The hotel chain maintains it did no wrong, stating, “We believe that the Opryland’s actions were lawful. We will continue to encourage the FCC to pursue a rulemaking in order to eliminate the ongoing confusion resulting from today’s action and to assess the merits of its underlying policy.”

Hidden Hotel Fees

Marriott claims that it was in fact protecting guests from “insidious” hot spots and potentially unsafe connections by blocking their ability to connect to them.

FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc stands by the ruling. “It is unacceptable for any hotel to intentionally disable personal hot spots while also charging consumers and small businesses high fees to use the hotel’s own Wi-Fi network,” he told CNN. “This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether.”

With so many hotels (especially convention centers) touting free Wi-Fi these days, I would probably not think anything of a poor connection, but would be suspicious of paying the equivalent of airfare just to log on.

Pay Less to Use Your Smartphone Overseas

Do you think hotels should have the right to control Internet connectivity on their premises, or is it just another way to make a buck? If you have a shady hotel Wi-Fi story, share in the comments.

— written by Brittany Chrusciel