Today is the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and while many of us dread the season’s chilly days and long nights, here at IndependentTraveler.com we’re looking on the bright side. Pack your snowboots and mittens, and join us for a virtual trip around the world’s winter wonderlands.
Norway is one of several countries where you can see the northern lights color the night sky.
Yaksaam Temple is part of Geumosan Provincial Park in South Korea.
Quebec City celebrates winter with numerous activities, including toboggan rides along Terrasse Dufferin.
Outside of Nagano, Japan, visitors can get up close and personal with snow monkeys keeping warm in the area’s hot springs.
In winter, you can hike through one of the ice caves near Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland.
Utah’s spectacular Bryce Canyon, a national park, looks even more striking under a dusting of snow.
Moscow‘s famously chilly winters make for picturesque scenes like this one.
Check out the travel stories you might have missed over the past week.
The Countries with the Best (and Worst) Airfare Deals in the World
Thrillist reports on a new aviation price index that can help you keep perspective on whether it truly is expensive to fly. The U.S. is the third-cheapest country for domestic flights (behind India and Malaysia), but it ranks 54th (out of 75 countries) for international flights. Canada ranks dead last for international flights, while China offers the best value.
Surfing Under the Northern Lights
Even if you’re not particularly interested in surfing, you won’t want to miss this feature from the New York Times, which combines striking imagery with a fascinating story about “hanging 10” in an unexpected part of the world.
A New Perspective of Our Planet
We loved clicking through the incredible satellite photos in this slideshow from CNN. Our favorite shots include Ipanema Beach and tulip fields in the Netherlands.
Why Airline Codesharing Must Die
Ever booked a flight on one airline and then realized at the airport that your flight was actually operated by a different carrier? USA Today explains the dangers of codesharing, including going to the wrong terminal or even missing your flight.
13 Ridiculously Gorgeous Pictures of Norway
If all you want today is to swoon over huge pictures of beautiful places, Rough Guides has the photo essay for you. Just don’t blame us if you find yourself booking a flight to Norway when you’re done.
Syria’s Message to Tourists: Come Back, Enjoy Our Beaches
Thanks to an ongoing civil war, Syria isn’t currently on the must-visit list for many travelers these days. But the Washington Post reports that the Tourism Ministry in this beleaguered country is trying to lure visitors back with a set of videos featuring the country’s beaches and historic sites.
There Might Be Millions of Dollars in Your Plane’s Cargo Hold
Conde Nast Traveler reveals that in addition to suitcases packed with clothes and souvenirs, your plane’s cargo hold may also be transporting millions of dollars’ worth of currency being sent between banks. (And yes, the airlines charge fees for these checked items as well.)
The Clock That Changed the Meaning of Time
BBC takes a fascinating look at a medieval watchtower in Bern, Switzerland, and the Governor of Time who is responsible for keeping its clock running. It was this clock that sparked the brainstorm leading to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Priceline Kills Name Your Own Price for Flights
Priceline is best known for its “Name Your Own Price” feature, which allows you to suggest the airfare, hotel rate or car rental price you want to without knowing which company will accept your offer after you’ve booked. Skift reports that the service is no longer available for flights (but it remains for hotels and cars).
End of the Road
Maptia offers a peek into the vanishing world of Bhutan’s Brokpa tribe, who have made their living herding yak for hundreds of years — but whose way of life is now threatened by a new road and the encroachment of modernity.
This week’s video offers a unique challenge: to see how many “Looney Tunes” characters this Southwest flight attendant mimics during an in-flight announcement.
Your Awkward Family Travel Photos
Have a laugh over this slideshow from the New York Times featuring bad ’80s hair, goofy poses and kids having temper tantrums — all the stuff great family trips are made of.
Why I Love Being a Pilot
A pilot tells the Guardian about his experience of “place lag,” which he describes as the feeling of being immersed in one destination and then, after a few hours on a plane, having to suddenly adapt to a new place and culture.
The Ultimate Berlin Street Food
BBC Travel investigates the history and cultural significance of currywurst, which is said to have been invented in 1949 by a bored snack bar owner in West Berlin.
5 Changes That Have Made Flying Safer
Conde Nast Traveler highlights just how safe it is to fly these days — there were only 136 fatalities last year out of 3.5 billion fliers — and explains the policies and technology that have led us to this point.
Google’s Mobile Service Gets International Upgrade
Travelers who rely on their phones abroad should check out this article from Travel + Leisure, which describes improvements to Google’s Project Fi mobile service — including high data speeds in more than 100 countries. (One important caveat: So far the service is only available for Google’s Nexus phones.)
CT Scanners Could End the Liquid Ban, and They’re Coming to Phoenix This Year
Airline blogger Cranky Flier reports that American Airlines will be testing out CT scanners at Phoenix Sky Harbor International this year. Such technology is currently in use for checked bags, but if it comes to the airport security checkpoint it could conceivably speed up the line and possibly even keep us from having to pull out our bags of liquids and gels. Here’s hoping…
This week’s video is a twofer from Visit Norway, which has introduced a new campaign called Sheep with a View. First up is the video introducing the project, while the second one is a behind-the-scenes look that’s even cuter.
Catch up on the travel news, photos and videos you might have missed this week.
14-Year-Old Girl to Be Youngest Person Taking on Massive Polar Expedition
We’ve got a new travel hero. Mashable profiles 14-year-old Jade Hameister, an Australian teenager who is hoping to complete a “Polar Hat Trick” involving expeditions to the North Pole, Greenland and the South Pole over the next couple of years. She’ll be accompanied by a master polar guide and by her father, who has climbed Mt. Everest. Check out Jade’s Instagram to keep tabs on her progress.
What Will Replace the Hated Hotel ‘Resort’ Fee? Maybe This
Consumer rights advocate Christopher Elliott has unearthed an obnoxious new fee to watch out for at hotels: a “hospitality surcharge.” A traveler who found this fee on his bill at a Hilton Garden Inn in New Mexico asked what it was, and got the following ridiculous answer: “The manager said it is for the TV monitor in the lobby displaying flight departure data and the lights in the hotel.” Seriously? What’s next, a charge for the front desk or the bathroom in your room?
This Is What Air Travel Will Actually Look Like in 100 Years
Travel + Leisure sat down with two Senior Technical Fellows at Boeing to find out what’s in store over the next several decades in the air travel industry. Their predictions blew our mind — including see-through planes, airport hotels in space and the ability to book flights via a chip implanted in your brain. Here’s hoping we live long enough to see some of these.
23 Incredible Pictures of Kenya
Rough Guides shows us the many sides of Kenya, from the cosmopolitan center of Nairobi to a camel derby in the hillside down of Maralal. Particularly striking are portraits of members of the Turkana, Samburu and Pokot tribes.
Why Are Americans So Afraid of Vacation?
The Boston Globe investigates a disturbing trend among Americans: not using all our vacation days. A couple of studies reveal that on average we give up four to five days a year. Even when we do take a trip, 61 percent of us still work at least a little bit during our vacation. But here’s why we shouldn’t: “Skipping vacation stifles creativity, creates health problems [and] leads to stress, depression, and less-than-ideal home lives,” says the Globe.
Airbnb to Purge Illegal Hotels from San Francisco Listings
For years Airbnb has faced legal challenges from cities concerned that the site’s hosts were violating their local short-term housing laws. Now the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the site is taking action against hosts who manage multiple listings in the City by the Bay. (San Francisco only allows residents to rent out space in their own home.)
Hamlet’s Kronborg Castle in Denmark Is on Airbnb for One Night Only to Mark Shakespeare Anniversary
Speaking of Airbnb, here’s a cool (and legal) listing: Hamlet’s castle. Lonely Planet reports that Kronborg Castle in Denmark will be open to two guests only on the night of April 23, the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Interested travelers must hit “contact host” on the Airbnb listing by April 13 and explain why they want to sleep in the castle. Included in your stay: a special banquet and breakfast in bed served by Hamlet’s friend Horatio.
Don’t miss this jaw-dropping timelapse video of the northern lights in Norway.
It’s that time of the week! Catch up on all the great travel stories you may have missed over the past seven days.
Walking the Great Wall’s Wild Side
This engaging story from the Alaska Airlines blog details a hiking adventure along an unrestored section of the Great Wall of China. Along the way the writer befriends three local women and tests his own bravery in the face of narrow paths and precipitous ledges.
Air Emergencies: Are Airlines Telling You What You Need to Know?
Canada’s CBC News reports that many airline safety briefings leave out a key bit of information that could save your life in a crash. A safety researcher quoted in the article says that using the brace position (in which you stabilize your body by bending over with your head against the seat in front of you) can “reduce severity of injuries” and “reduce deaths.” The position is illustrated on the safety card in your seatback pocket but often not mentioned in safety videos or live demonstrations by flight attendants.
How Scientists Are ‘Hacking’ the Body to Override Jet Lag
Could flashing lights help cure jet lag? That’s the latest from Conde Nast Traveler, which reports on a new study that tested short flashes of light administered 10 seconds apart while study participants were sleeping. This treatment is believed to help the brain acclimate more quickly to time changes.
A Robot Butler Is Replacing Humans in Some California Hotels
The next time you ring the front desk staff to ask if they have a spare toothbrush, you might find the real-life equivalent of R2-D2 bringing it to your door. Business Insider reports on a growing trend of robots in hotels, with about a dozen properties now employing them in California.
This week’s video features droolworthy footage from the Norwegian fjords, where a dedicated young guitarist hauled his instrument up to a few of the region’s most spectacular overlooks.
While friends of mine spent their recent snowed-in weekend reserving their summer vacation rentals and booking flights to Florida, I took the opposite approach: I looked through photos of some of my favorite snow-covered destinations around the world.
Svalbard, Norway: As I bemoaned my cabin fever this weekend, I thought about how the hearty residents of one of the world’s northernmost towns would laugh at my whininess. The archipelago of Svalbard — and specifically its main city of Longyearbyen — was my first experience in a faraway Arctic outpost where people eke out a living year-round. I visited in July, when the temperature was a balmy 25 degrees Fahrenheit and the streets were clear of snow. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, because polar bears often wander into town.
From Longyearbyen, we then sailed throughout Svalbard for 10 days aboard a cruise ship with a strengthened hull that could cope with the slushy waters. We took daily excursions via Zodiac landing crafts, getting splashed by the frigid water the whole time. But the natural ice sculptures that surrounded us at every turn took my breath away and I barely noticed the cold.
Churchill, Canada: A November trip to Churchill, Canada, put me in close proximity to polar bears. Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world, as the bears congregate there waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze so that they can hunt.
Following a three-hour flight from Winnipeg, I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac and was immediately whipped in the face by 50-mile-an-hour winds. It was the coldest weather I had ever experienced — negative 41 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill.
The cold was worth it, though, with close-up views of polar bears (from the safety and warmth of specially outfitted and heated polar rovers) and sunsets like the one above.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, U.S.A.: Yellowstone National Park is a marvel, but neighboring Grand Teton National Park is a gem in wholly different ways. Even in June, the Tetons were still covered in snow during my visit, making for a lovely backdrop as we went kayaking on Colter Bay.
Like Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park is accessible only half the year, and most of the lodging is closed in winter. Snow cover makes it virtually impenetrable for most travelers.
Southeast Alaska, U.S.A.: Sailing in a small vessel through the Inside Passage of Alaska left me cold to the core, even in the middle of summer, thanks to a bone-chilling rain that fell on us nearly the whole time. But the gray skies created atmospheric backdrops for photos, and I got to see calving glaciers for the first time.
Seville may be romanticized as the vibrant jewel of southern Spain, but for me it’ll forever be remembered as a dusty, hot and overcrowded tourist trap. My only vivid memory is of being drenched in sweat walking up the never-ending ramps of the Giralda bell tower.
Ditto for Florence, Italy, which was overrun with American tour groups and so lacking in lodging when I visited that I had to sleep in a shabby hostel where the roaches congregated at night by the drain in the shower.
There are cities that you’re supposed to fall in love with, that you’re supposed to dream of visiting over and over again. Seville and Florence weren’t among them for me, and I don’t ever think I’ll go back. (To see more staff picks for cities not worth a second trip, see 12 Places You Only Need to See Once.)
Where will I return? Most certainly these five places:
Lima, Peru: I must admit, I wasn’t impressed during my first visit to Lima nearly a decade ago. But the city has improved — traffic seems less frenetic and neighborhoods less run down. Lima is worth the trip for its foodie scene alone; some of the world’s most noteworthy restaurants are there.
San Francisco, California: I don’t think of the City by the Bay merely as a U.S. city. San Francisco belongs to the world. Of all the cities I’ve visited, San Francisco is, hands down, the most beautiful. I never tire of the view, especially if the Golden Gate Bridge is within sight.
Oslo, Norway: The two days I spent after a cruise to Arctic Norway weren’t nearly enough time in the pristine and pretty Norwegian capital. Oslo is expensive ($12 for a cup of coffee? Seriously?), but worth another visit merely for an extra day strolling through the incredible sculpture garden in Vigeland Park.
Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.
Population: 5.2 million
Currency: Norwegian krone
Phrase to Know: Snakkar du engelsk? (Do you speak English?)
Fun Fact: Dying is forbidden in the Norwegian community of Longyearbyen, located above the Arctic Circle in the Svalbard archipelago. According to the BBC, the cemetery in this small town no longer accepts new bodies because they don’t decompose in the area’s permafrost. Locals who become seriously ill or who die unexpectedly must be flown to the mainland.
On my last trip, I traveled nearly to the ends of the earth.
My destination was Svalbard, a remote cluster of islands located approximately halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It’s a land where polar bears and reindeer roam, and where the only ways to get around are by air, sea, snowmobile or dog sled.
I traveled with polar specialist Quark Expeditions, which offers small-ship cruises in Antarctica, Greenland, northern Canada, Norway, Iceland and even the North Pole. My itinerary was the “Introduction to Spitsbergen,” a Svalbard cruise that sails roundtrip from Longyearbyen with a focus on spotting polar bears, walruses and other Arctic wildlife.
Over eight nights aboard Sea Adventurer, Quark’s oldest vessel, I discovered a few of the qualities that make this itinerary special — plus a couple of little things that didn’t quite live up to expectations.
HITS Wildlife: Every part of a Svalbard cruise is designed to get passengers as close to the wildlife as possible. When a whale surfaces or a polar bear is spotted in the pack ice, the ship veers off course to get a better look. For more intimate encounters, smaller Zodiac boats bring passengers right up to the shoreline for views of nesting puffins or grazing reindeer. In the most incredible moments, the animals came to us — as when a polar bear padded directly across the ice to within about 50 feet of our ship, lifting its sensitive nose to scent us every step of the way. The wildlife is the number one reason that most people book a Svalbard cruise, and it didn’t disappoint.
Staff: Led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable expedition team, Sea Adventurer’s crew kept us safe, well fed and well informed. Naturalist guides piloted the Zodiacs and offered insight about the animals and birds we saw along the way. When viewing wildlife on deck, they helped passengers spot the animals (which were often quite far away and difficult to see, even with binoculars) and positioned the ship’s telescopes to give us a better glimpse. In the evenings they gave talks on everything from walruses to glacial geology.
Beyond the expedition team, the rest of the crew greeted us with smiles and provided efficient service in the dining room, bar and cabins.
Food: Sea Adventurer may not be a massive cruise ship with food around the clock, but we certainly never went hungry. From early-morning munchies in the lounge to tempting desserts at both lunch and dinner, the food aboard the ship was plentiful and usually delicious (if not always particularly healthy). The highlight was an Arctic barbecue, held on deck one mild evening when the ship was anchored in a fjord. Dining alfresco on burgers, ribs and corn on the cob with a stunning view of a glacier? Yes, please.
MISSES Shore Landings: One of our scheduled hiking outings was called off because we spotted a polar bear on shore — obviously not a creature we wanted to encounter on foot! Another landing spot was inaccessible due to ice. In the end, we boarded on Monday afternoon and didn’t set foot on land again until Friday afternoon. That didn’t mean we were twiddling our thumbs in our cabins — Quark filled our days with Zodiac cruises (including some amazing close-up viewing of the polar bear that would have been such a danger to us on land) and nature lectures. Fortunately, we did end up with four landings over the last three days of the cruise, all of which were excellent. But passengers on any Svalbard cruise should keep in mind that all landings are subject to the whims of weather and wildlife.
Staying in Touch: While Internet access was available on the ship (via Wi-Fi and two computers in the Internet cafe), it often didn’t work in the remote regions where we were cruising. Even when you could get a signal, it was extremely slow and might boot you off between emails. Considering the lofty prices ($20 for 10 MB of data, $50 for 30 MB and $130 for 100 MB) and the fact that the access cards are nonrefundable, most passengers simply didn’t bother.