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adirondack chairs porchEarlier this week, IndependentTraveler.com’s own Ed Hewitt highlighted the myriad benefits of membership in a hotel rewards program, such as free stays, room upgrades and other perks. (See Seven Smart Reasons to Join a Hotel Rewards Program to get the scoop.) But for many independent travelers, there’s one major drawback: Who wants to stay in bland chain hotels all the time?

If you’re the type of globetrotter who seeks out cozy B&B’s, stylish boutique hotels or unique local properties, you don’t have to forgo hotel rewards programs. We’ve unearthed three intriguing loyalty programs that go beyond the usual Starwoods and Hyatts.

Tablet Plus
TabletHotels.com is a portal for boutique and luxury hotels around the world, many of them independently owned. The site’s loyalty program, Tablet Plus, offers complimentary upgrades, advance access to private sales, and fun extras like free cocktails and cooking classes at hundreds of participating hotels. Membership costs $195 a year.

Do You Prefer Chains or Independent Hotels?

Golden Quill
An alliance of nearly 400 inns and B&B’s across North America, SelectRegistry.com offers a rewards program, called Golden Quill, that’s refreshingly simple: stay 12 nights, and get a reward certificate of $100 to be used toward your next stay at any Select Registry property. There’s no cost for the program, but you’ll need to accumulate your 12 nights within a two-year period to qualify for the $100 reward.

GHA Discovery
We’re cheating a little by including the Global Hotel Alliance in this list, since it’s a network of small luxury hotel chains (including Anantara, Omni and Pan Pacific) — but its rewards program is unlike most others in the world. The GHA Discovery program offers not free stays but unique local experiences, such as surfing lessons, spa treatments, after-hours access to museums or meet-and-greet sessions with local public figures. The more nights you stay, the more exclusive the experiences available to you. Membership, which is free, also includes more conventional loyalty perks such as free Wi-Fi, your choice of newspaper and room upgrades.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

vacation rental beach sandalsHow many of you rely on user-generated reviews to help pick a hotel or vacation rental? Virtual show of hands. That’s what we thought. And if a vacation rental owner’s property listing had bathroom pics showing only the porcelain spaces not dripping black mold, you might be inclined to tell the world, ex post tripso.

Not so fast.

According to a recent piece by veteran consumer travel writer Chris Elliott, “non-disparagement” clauses are seeping into vacation rental contracts as owners and management companies attempt to vigorously defend their reputations in a user-generated landscape. One scathing review, real or fake, can gut a small business, they say. Consumers aren’t the only ones who need protection.

Blow off the fine print and you could face a heavy fine, which a couple did recently for posting a negative review of an Arizona vacation rental on VRBO.com. Their rental contract said they needed consent from the owner or the owner’s rep, Progressive Management Concepts, to do so. Their credit card was hit with a punitive $500 fine. (The couple eventually agreed to take down the review and got their $500 back, plus $200 more.)

Finding a Vacation Rental

TJ Mahony, CEO and co-founder of IndependentTraveler.com sister site FlipKey, a vacation rental site, told us he hadn’t heard of this practice yet — but said, “In principle, we would never encourage nor support this.

“The overwhelmingly majority of vacation rental experiences are positive. Moreover, FlipKey and TripAdvisor offer extensive reputation management tools to help homeowners effectively manage their online reputation and address unreasonable claims.”

Mahony said he would personally never sign a contract including such a clause.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

We agree. While there’s little doubt that fake, or at least disingenuous, reviews are a problem, forced confidentiality is not the solution. Online reviews are not some “vast buzzing, blooming confusion,” as travel icon Arthur Frommer recently told the Wall Street Journal. They’re one of many essential tools — which include, yes, guidebooks — used by the savvy traveler.

So, amid the fine print, there’s may be another question to ask when interviewing a vacation rental owner: Are you okay with consumer reviews?

– written by Dan Askin

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns FlipKey.

house in the clouds suffolk englandThanks to everyone who participated in last Friday’s photo caption contest. We received some great submissions, but our favorite was from Jean Jonker, who wrote, “I found the PEZ Museum!” Jean has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

Runners-up that we also loved:

“Keepin’ up with the Weasleys” — Liz Richardson

“Well, at least there won’t be any solicitors!” — BJP

“Yes, it’s our little bit of heaven but we should have put in an elevator.” — Nancy James

To see the rest of the submissions, click here.

Friday’s photo was of the House in the Clouds in Suffolk, England, which is available for rental. Interested in a lofty stay? See HouseintheClouds.co.uk.

Do you have a funny or bizarre photo that we could use for a future caption contest? Send it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put “Caption Contest” in the subject line.) If we feature your photo on our blog, we’ll send you a prize.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

holiday inn expressAs a traveler, I’m bewitched by B&B’s. Entranced by independent inns. Lured to local lodging like pensiones in Italy or ryokans in Japan. If it’s quirky, charming, intimate or unique, I want to stay there. I like getting a taste of local color, and putting my vacation dollars toward independently owned businesses instead of big international hotel corporations.

And yet, even though it goes against my independent traveler ethos, sometimes I just can’t resist staying in a chain hotel.

This happened most recently on a trip to Los Angeles, which I was attempting to explore without a car. If I didn’t want to spend a fortune on taxis, I had to find a hotel within walking distance of the Metro — preferably one that was clean and had positive reviews from previous travelers. And, naturally, I didn’t want to break the budget either.

I had to pass up a few intriguing B&B’s and boutique hotels because of inconvenient locations or high rates. But I finally struck gold at the Holiday Inn Express – Hollywood Walk of Fame, which was just a few blocks from the Metro and offered free Wi-Fi and hot breakfast. It wasn’t the most interesting place I’ve ever stayed, but the room was clean, the Internet was fast and the price was right ($160/night for a location near Hollywood’s most popular sights).

See More Los Angeles Hotels

Chain hotels often have other benefits as well, like loyalty programs, fitness centers and the simple security of knowing what to expect when you arrive (which can be reassuring when you’re thrown into a wholly unfamiliar place).

Which type of lodging do you prefer? Vote in the poll below or share your thoughts in the comments.

What Not to Do at a Hotel

– written by Sarah Schlichter

z hotel london sohoThere were no drawers for my clothes and only two hangers on the quartet of pegs that substituted for a closet, the bed was pushed against the windows (allowing for maximum exposure to the drunken “singing” at 3 a.m. below), and the shower flooded the sink area of the bathroom every morning — but one simple impression remained from my five-night January stay at London‘s Z Hotel.

I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The hotel, which opened in the Soho neighborhood in fall 2011, is decidedly not for everyone. I stayed because it was “only” $220 a night including taxes, which sadly enough is considered dirt-cheap in a city known for its exorbitant costs. But ultimately it was money well spent. The neighborhood, a mass of bars, clubs, restaurants and overlap from the adjacent theater-rich West End, is a London hot spot, with easy reach to the rest of the city.

Those rooms, however, are an acquired taste. They’re tiny by just about any measure; my Z Queen was advertised at being okay for two, but five nights in 150 square feet of space might have ended in divorce if I’d brought my wife. Z Singles, some of which are window-free (think of it as a cruise ship inside cabin without the free buffet), are a mere 85 square feet. The hotel comprises 12 Georgian townhouses interconnected by cooler-than-you lounge areas and glass-railed bridges, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get some fresh air, but still …

See Our Favorite London Hotels

hotel z soho london queenAll in all, my tiny space was incredibly functional, even if I had to pile my clothes on the shelf behind the bed and use my laptop on my, well, laptop (there was no desk). It took me an embarrassing amount of time to discover that I had to point the clicker for the suspended 40-inch TV (awesome!) at the headboard — and not the TV itself. But the free Wi-Fi was ridiculously fast, and I dug the upscale linens, plush duvet and Thierry Mugler toiletries. The ultra-modern shower, sink and toilet occupied the same giant glass-enclosed cube, but once I figured out that I could build a dam out of a towel, I put a damper on the mess that ensued every time I washed.

With the London Olympics approaching, I wondered what the hotel is charging for the expected mad rush. I couldn’t find many nights available for the Z Queens, but those singles are still up for grabs. For Thursday, August 2, to Tuesday, August 7 — five nights during the heart of the Games — singles are running about $360 a night. Not exactly a gold-medal-winning tariff, but, man, you can’t beat that location.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Hotel

Would you stay at the Hotel Z?

– written by John Deiner

academy awards oscarsWho doesn’t love a good awards show? Inspired by the Oscars this weekend, we’ve put together our own list of bests and worsts from the travel industry over the past year. The envelope, please…

Best Performance by an Airline
No, we’re not talking about on-time performance. We’re talking about music, dancing and having fun — and that prize goes to Finnair, for its toe-tapping Bollywood performance in honor of India’s Republic Day.

Worst Performance by a Leading Man
Two thumbs down for Alec Baldwin, who was booted off a plane for refusing to turn off his iPhone when the cabin crew requested that all portable electronic devices be shut down. His attitude that he was somehow too good to follow the same safety rules as the rest of us earned pans from many travelers.

I’ll Take a Large Popcorn and a Ticket to Paris

Best Newcomer
In a sea of new hotels that opened in 2011, one stood — quite literally — above the rest. Hong Kong’s brand-new Ritz-Carlton is now the highest hotel in the world, reaching some 1,600 feet into the sky. Toast the view from the rooftop bar on the 118th floor.

Lifetime Achievement Award
Steve Jobs, who passed away in October, will always be remembered for innovations that changed the world — including the travel industry. As we wrote in Steve Jobs: A Traveler’s Tribute, “That awesome ATM finder or the currency conversion app you can’t globetrot without wouldn’t exist if Jobs hadn’t dreamed up the interface for it.”

Which awards would you give out to members of the travel world?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airport travelersAfter another year of covering the highs and lows of the travel world, we’re taking a look back at the stories that really got our readers talking — or ranting, as the case may be. Below, we count down our five most popular blog posts of 2011.

5. It’s no secret: The airlines are one segment of the travel industry that our readers love to hate. But which ones are truly the bottom of the barrel? Earlier this year, Consumer Reports put out a list of the Best and Worst Airlines. More than a dozen readers responded, including a wry Matt Leonard: “The worst airline to me is generally whatever airline I last flew.”

4. We polled our readers back in April to discover The Hotel Amenity Travelers Want Most. (Hint: The answer is something you’re more likely to find at cheap hotels than at luxury properties.) If you missed the initial vote, it’s not too late to weigh in with your own preferences in our poll.

3. Readers were up in arms over European carrier Ryanair’s plan to remove all but one toilet from its planes, which carry up to 189 people. (Can you imagine the line?) “I wonder if they will be selling ‘piddle paks’ or just ‘Depends’ in the in-flight boutique? Anything to make a profit,” quipped reader Debra in the comments. Reader Jackie said simply, “I will be voting with my feet — which will carry me to a different airline check-in.”

2. More than 550 comments poured in for our post about The Suitcase That Beats Baggage Fees. This petite powerhouse of a suitcase is sized specifically to help travelers avoid Spirit Airlines’ fee for carry-on bags (up to $40), and we gave one away to one lucky commenter. Didn’t win? You can still check out our Five Ways to Beat “A La Carte” Airline Fees.

1. Readers sick of paying big bucks for bland chain hotels flocked to Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay, in which we suggested creative alternatives like monasteries in Italy and farmstays in New Zealand. Reader nassautravellers chimed in to agree with our vacation rental suggestion: “We travel a lot around the Caribbean and most often rent vacation properties — condos, villas etc. We find this to be the most cost-effective way. Usually, the rates are cheaper per night than hotels and we can get our own groceries saving on restaurant meals (and the waistline!!).”

Which topics will get us talking in 2012? Check out our Nine Predictions for Travel in 2012.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

farm turkeysIn merely a week’s time, families across the U.S. will gather together to dine on turkeys, Tofurkeys, pies and potatoes. It all sounds fantastic — unless you’re the one washing the dishes and stuffing bread cubes into the back end of a bird. Although November 24 is fast approaching, you still have a chance to flee your kitchen and embark on a refreshing holiday weekend getaway, sans scary electric carving knife. Here are five fantastic Thanksgiving hotel deals to lure you away from that stove.

1. Pie and Booze in San Francisco
San Francisco’s Hotel Palomar is topping off your Thanksgiving stay with a freshly baked pie and a bottle of — what else — Wild Turkey bourbon. The downtown boutique hotel, which offers free Wi-Fi and is pet-friendly, is pairing these celebratory perks with deluxe accommodations in its “Pie + Family + Booze = Splendid Holiday” package, available through the end of December. Prices start at $299 per night.

2. Save Up to 58% on Thanksgiving Hotel Stays
Hotels.com is offering up to 58 percent off hotel stays in dozens of destinations around the world — including the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Canada and locales across the U.S. We recently featured this offer as the Travel Deal of the Week on our blog, and for good reason. This wide-ranging hotel sale covers so many properties, it’s worth a look no matter where you’re heading for the holidays.

3. Newark Airport Thanksgiving Package
If your eve-of-Thanksgiving flight is departing at an hour during which you’d normally be fast asleep, consider staying near the airport. New York-area travelers can avoid those high holiday hotel prices by booking the Thanksgiving Weekend deal at the Newark Liberty International Airport Marriott. Special Thanksgiving rates start at $199 a night.

4. Celebrate Thanksgiving Like a President
This Thanksgiving package in Washington D.C. includes a host of holiday perks, from a four-course Turkey Day dinner for up to eight people to a professionally photographed family portrait taken in your suite. You’ll bunk at the Madison, a luxurious boutique hotel located near National Mall monuments and, of course, down the street from the First Family. Prices start at $799 per night.

5. Give Thanks on the Slopes
Spend a long weekend zooming down the slopes, dining on decadent four-course dinners and toasting the holiday from the comfort of a traditional mountain lodge in Utah. Alta Lodge, set at the base of the Alta Ski Area, is offering a four-night Thanksgiving package that covers meals, lodging and taxes for $900 per person. A special Thanksgiving dinner is also included in the rates.

– written by Caroline Costello

Tewkesbury, EnglandIf you’re planning on visiting the U.K., you and your fellow travelers might be torn between the bright lights of London, the highlands of Scotland, the sheer beauty of Cornwall or the castles of Wales. But with some careful planning, you will be able to keep everyone happy.

If you book a self-catering cottage, you can save some money too. Many holiday property owners in the U.K .rent their properties independently, thereby avoiding agency fees (typically 20 – 25 percent), and the savings are passed on to you. Sites like Independent Cottages have hundreds of independently owned holiday cottages for rent and cover all of the U.K.’s most popular destinations, including the Cotswolds, the Lake District, New Forest, Cornwall, Devon and the Scottish Highlands (to name just a few).

25 Ways to Save in Europe

For a first trip to the U.K., consider a central location in the English countryside such as the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds encompass parts of Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire. Many view the Cotswolds as quintessentially English, with very pretty “chocolate box” villages, near perfect pubs and a beautiful rolling countryside (“wold” means hill). The history of the Cotswolds dates back to the medieval days of the 13th century. Lots of local buildings were built in the 15th and 16th centuries, so they’re very old and full of character. Many structures have oak beams, stone floors and original fireplaces. Some even boast thatched roofs. It’s a very clean, pretty and well-maintained area, and, of course, the locals speak English!

The airports of London Heathrow and Birmingham are suitable hubs for traveling to the Cotswolds (both being a leisurely one- or two-hour drive away). The Cotswolds’ central location in England makes the region a very convenient base from which to explore the country. London is also close (about 90 minutes by train from Moreton-in-Marsh), so you can plan some days in the city and return to the peace and seclusion of the English countryside, or, more importantly, the English pub. Places like Stonehenge, Bath, Oxford and Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace) are also accessible by car. There are many very pretty towns and villages in the Cotswolds, such as Stow-on-the-Wold, Chipping Campden, Broadway and Burford, as well as the dubious-sounding Lower Slaughter. Visit Independent Cottages for a selection of privately owned holiday cottages in the Cotswolds.

If you do take a day trip to London, some advanced planning could help you save money. The train stations at Moreton-in-Marsh and Kingham both serve London Paddington. Make sure that any train tickets you purchase include the London Underground (London’s subway), also called “the tube.” Discounts are available for young people and senior travelers.

Here are some more tips on booking a holiday cottage in the U.K.:

– First of all, the term “self-catering cottage” means just that: a cottage where you cater for yourself. This means that no food is provided. But you can expect the kitchen to be fully equipped with cooking utensils. Some owners provide a welcome hamper (milk, eggs, etc.), while others don’t, so always check with the owner.

– Make your enquiries via e-mail at first, but when you find a cottage that you like, consider phoning and speaking to the owner (be aware of the time difference or you might hear some quaint old English words that could easily offend the less worldly!). Arranging flights and coordinating arrival times can be difficult, so be sure to ask any questions that you might have.

– Check to see if your cottage has laundry facilities. Nobody goes on holiday to do laundry, but the ability to freshen up travel-weary clothes will allow you to pack lighter.

– If you’ll be driving with a GPS unit, ask the owner for the property’s postcode (the U.K. equivalent to zip code), as this can help guide you to the door.

– Make sure that all towels, linen, heating, cleaning services, etc. are included. Agree upon all costs up front.

– Independent cottage owners will often want to receive payment in advance of arrival (usually six weeks or so). Do not worry; this is quite normal. However, if you do have any concerns, consider speaking to or e-mailing a customer service representative at the holiday rental site with which you’re booking. Ask how long the property owners have been with the rental site and if there have been any complaints about the property.

– Many independent rental owners cannot take credit card payments. If this is a concern to you, ask the owners if they accept PayPal (many do).

– Check and double check the arrangements for picking up the key — especially if you are arriving late at night.

– There are many different types and styles of accommodations in the U.K. If you are staying in a period property, remember that people were a lot shorter back in the 1600’s! Again, check with the owner about suitability and accessibility.

– written by Steve Jarvis. Jarvis manages holiday cottages in the U.K. as well as running Independent Cottages.

family vacationEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our newsletter.

A few weekends ago, I went to Kentucky to be part of a friend’s wedding. She’d rented out an entire B&B for the bridal party, and our group stayed up late into the night chatting and laughing in front of the huge outdoor fireplace.

As I drove back home at the end of the weekend, I wondered why I didn’t travel with friends like that more often. It was incredibly fun — and as Caroline Costello points out in The Seven Cheapest Ways to Travel, it could actually save me money:

“Vacation rentals may not be your best bet if you’re a solo traveler or you like to eat out. But if you’re traveling with a family or another couple, a vacation rental could save you big bucks over a hotel. Staying in a vacation rental with a number of people is less expensive because each person you add to your party cuts costs significantly.

“For example, on HomeAway.com, we found a two-bedroom, two-bathroom ocean-view villa in Maui that sleeps four for just $195 per night — that’s less than $50 per person per night if you can find three travel buddies to bring along. Plus, buying larger quantities of food at the grocery store and cooking in instead of eating at restaurants can help you save even more (who doesn’t love a good barbecue?).”

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

Vacation rentals tend to be most popular in kid-friendly beach destinations, where families pile into shore houses with colorful towels hanging from the balcony. But you can find them just about anywhere. Imagine waking up in an apartment on a quiet residential street in Rome and getting your morning cappuccino at the little cafe on the corner … or booking your own private little Maine cabin in the woods just for you and your three best friends.

A word to the wise: Vacation rentals tend to be best for travelers planning to stick around at least a few days, as some have minimum-stay requirements — particularly in the most popular beach destinations.

Still not convinced? See Vacation Rentals: Right for You? And don’t miss our guide to Finding a Vacation Rental.

– written by Sarah Schlichter