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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

assistance ahead “Did you notice the crust?” This is not a question one wants to hear when talking hotel rooms. But it’s posed with utter giddiness when one is in room number 27 at the Roxbury in New York’s Catskills region; for this is “Mary Ann’s Coconut Cream Pie” room, a flamboyant space with a faux-meringue ceiling, a round bed and a hint of coconut in the air.

It’s the newest addition at the Roxbury, where room designs riff on movies and T.V. — Jeannie’s bottle, Charlie’s Angels, Maria’s curtains from “The Sound of Music.” You can book a “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”-inspired blue jewel box of a room, or stay in the grander Wizard’s Jewels room, with its yellow glass floor tiles, mural of poppies and ruby-slippered feet sticking out from under the bed pillows.

Bizarre Requests from Hotel Guests

It sounds zanier than it is. The Roxbury is big on style and comfort; it is not a hyperactive theme-park experience. From the nice toiletries to the bowl of wasabi peanuts at reception, the owners’ loving attention to detail is palpable. The proprietors are a pair of New York City refugees who took a gamble on a downtrodden roadside motel, transforming a den of disrepair into a cozy place to rest your inner Fred Flintstone.

It may seem like a radical juxtaposition — a place that unabashedly embraces lime green and meringue ceilings amid placid Roxbury, population 2,500. Yet the motel sits harmoniously here, beside a trout stream with a barn in spitting distance. In the stairwell, one of the first things I notice is the huge chandelier made of what looks like a thousand neon orange drinking straws. It does not seem wrong.

The charm is in the details: chocolates, fresh flowers. Munch fancy soy crisps in the glittery spa ($20 per person for unlimited visits during your stay), or pepperoni Hot Pockets ($1 from the office). Copies of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 movies are available in the free-to-borrow DVD collection, as well as vintage “The Addams Family” episodes. What’s your rainy-day game: chess, or Operation?

Over breakfast on the sun porch, the various weekend leaf-peepers and hikers compare notes and offer suggestions for future room themes (one 9-year-old’s contribution: Sponge Bob). If you’re lucky, you meet the people in room 27, the friendly couple from New Jersey who invite you to come check out the digs. You go. You notice the crust. Delicious.

– written by Deborah Bogosian

moneyTypically, we aim to showcase travel deals that save you money — like this half-price cruise to the Western Mediterranean. But a few deals for hostel dorm beds during the 2012 London Olympics (July 27 to August 12) were so frightening that we had to share.

Sites like Expedia and Hotels.com have policies dictating that you can’t book rooms more than 11 months out, which means they’re only now allowing reservations coinciding with the Olympics.

Here’s what we found: A 28-bed all-male dorm room at Palmers Lodge Hostel (just south of Hampstead Heath) is on sale for $157.50 per person, per night on Hotels.com — that’s about $4,400 per night for the whole room. (The rate includes 28 breakfasts.) That said, whichever bed you book in the hotel, be it in an ensuite double or an eight-person female-only room, the per-person price remains the same. (Hint: Palmers’ direct booking prices are significantly cheaper than those posted by Hotels.com.)

Want to stay at Hostel 639, a spot near Notting Hill, during similar dates? On Hotels.com, the per-person price for a night at Hostel 639 is equal to rates for a dorm at Palmers — but Hostel’s rates are two times what Palmers offers for a basic double with shared bathroom. That’s more than $500 per night for two travelers. Reserve a quad room today and you’ll pay $1,000 per night. Booking sites, including Hotels.com and Venere.com, have rates starting at less than $20 (includes taxes) for stays at the same properties this September.

These price hikes should come as no surprise, since news outlets have been reporting on soaring rates during the Olympics in London for some time. But perhaps we can be optimistic that the hoteliers are being, well, optimistic. Tom Jenkins, chief executive of the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA), told the Telegraph, “In Athens [host city of the 2004 Olympics], around 15,000 hotel rooms were sold. London has 125,000 rooms to sell. Such optimistic pricing in the face of such disparity is extremely brave.”

David Tarsh, another spokesman for the ETOA, has been widely quoted as saying visitors to London during the Olympics should wait until early next year before booking accommodations; Tarsh has predicted that hotels with unsold rooms will be forced to reduce their prices by that time.

Have you ever stumbled upon a hotel deal that was too bad to be true? Share it in the comments.

– written by Dan Askin

 Villa Mistral, St. JohnWhat do a private Caribbean island, a 16th-century Tuscan estate and the former abode of Frank Sinatra have in common? They’re all available on Jetset Homes, a new luxury vacation rentals booking site that kicked off today.

The just-launched rental site, which can be found under the “Homes” tab on Jetsetter.com, currently offers more than 200 luxury properties worldwide. According to a press release from the company, “Jetsetter’s inventory of vacation homes is located around the world, with a high concentration in the Caribbean, Mexico, the American West, California, France and Italy. Size and price vary from a five-bedroom house in Crete for $310 per night to a palatial 14-bedroom mansion on a private Caribbean island for $53,000 per night.”

How Private Sale Travel Sites Could Save You Money

The release also reports that Jetset Homes will feature flash sales for a handful of its luxury listings on a weekly basis. The site will slash prices of five to 10 rental properties by 20 to 50 percent each week.

It looks like even more savings are on offer in honor of the big launch. When I logged onto the site this morning, a coupon popped up touting $500 off my first Jetset Homes booking. (A minimum five-night stay is required, and the savings are automatically deducted at checkout.) Here’s what the coupon looks like:

jetset homes coupon



A $500 coupon sounds like an astonishing offer to a plebian sale-sniffing traveler like myself. But considering the astronomical nightly rates of the places listed on Jetset Homes, there’s no reason to reach for that credit card without some careful budgetary consideration. The listings on Jetset Homes, which feature big, colorful photos, are excellent fodder for travel fantasy. (Play “Which One Would I Book?” during your lunch break.) However, a week’s stay at one of these spots could cost as much as a Prius.

There is one way to stay at a Jetset Homes property without selling your vehicle. For traveling groups, Jetset Homes may actually offer reasonable prices, and some of the houses listed on the site can sleep up to 20 people. For example, a night’s stay at Casa Kimball, a clifftop estate in the Dominican Republic, sells for $2,800. But the property can fit 20 travelers within its two-building, eight-bedroom expanse. Is there a family reunion, group getaway or destination wedding on your horizon? Split the cost among 20 and each guest will only pay about $140 per night for his or her accommodations.

Jetsetter is a members-only private sale travel site. So, whether you want to stare at pretty pictures or sell your Prius and book a stay, you’ll have to join to get access to the luxury listings on Jetset Homes.

Would you book a stay with Jetset Homes?

– written by Caroline Costello

hotel front desk receptionEvery 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 (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

With the vast majority of properties offering some form of online bookings these days, picking up the phone to book a hotel may seem so … last-century. And yet, sometimes there are benefits to calling the front desk and talking to a live human being.

As we advise in Choosing a Hotel, “Calling a hotel directly … might get you a room at the last minute or during peak travel times. National reservations desks often have a cap on the number of rooms they can fill at any given hotel, with the rest left to the specific hotel staff. Those working at the front desk have a better sense of the hotel’s capacity and will be more likely to check for cancellations or no-shows. … Avoid calling in the morning or mid-afternoon, when front desks are busiest.”

While you’re on the phone, you can also ask for information that might not be readily available online, such as which rooms or floors have better views, how safe the neighborhood is if you’re arriving after dark, and which amenities will be available in your particular room.

If price is a concern, this is your chance to negotiate for a better deal. Ask if the hotel is currently offering any specials, or if they have discounts for seniors, AAA members and the like. The worst they can say is no.

See more ideas for lowering your hotel rate.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

computer vacationIs your obsession with the “Real Housewives” franchise interfering with your hygiene? Has your spouse ever referred to your Blackberry as “that tramp”? Do your travel photos consist mostly of images of you posting travel photos to Facebook? If you answered “yes,” a digital detox package could help.

According to the Wall Street Journal, legions of hotels are offering digital detox packages to cure gadget-obsessed guests of their technology addictions. These packages encourage travelers to dump their smartphones, laptops and other vestiges of modernity in the lap of the hotel concierge (or, in a less dramatic move, to just leave them at home), in exchange for certain perks.

How do the hotels manage to wrench perfectly good iPads out from under the restless thumbs of wired travelers? They sweeten the transaction with discounts — and the occasional copy of “Anna Karenina.” Writes the WSJ, “Typically, they ask travelers to surrender their electronic devices upon check-in. In return, concierges provide them with old-fashioned diversions, from board games to literary classics. (Most, but not all, also yank TV sets and telephones from ‘detox’ rooms.)”

Here’s an example: The Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel is offering a special promotional rate for guests who turn over their electronic gizmos at check-in. The hotel’s “Zen and the Art of Detox” package includes accommodations and kayaking lessons for nightly rates starting at $199. Before you get to your room, the hotel staff will remove the TV, phone and iHome dock station, and replace such contraband with “literary classics.” If you leave the hotel during your stay, a staff member will follow you and pelt you with Jane Austen novels whenever you come within 500 yards of an Apple store or a Starbucks with an Internet connection.

Are we so obsessed with megapixels and apps that we need someone to drag the flat-screen out of the hotel room and confiscate our phones before we can relax?

I must add, removing the phone from the hotel room could be a safety hazard. If someone breaks in or you choke on your dinner, how do you call for help? Are you supposed to ring some kind of antique service bell? I suggest bending the rules a bit and smuggling an extra smartphone into your room in case of emergency. (Try baking it into a cake — this seems to work in prison movies.)

What’s your take? Would you book a digital detox vacation package, or is this kind of thing just a silly marketing ploy?

– written by Caroline Costello