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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Here’s another edition of our weekly travel news round-up, keeping travelers informed, inspired and entertained.

airplane water sunsetHow to Fly Free Forever: Charge $170 Million on Your AmEx Card
A Chinese billionaire recently charged the purchase of a $170 million painting to his American Express card, racking up enough reward points to fly in first class for free for the rest of his life. USA Today estimates that he could fly in a first-class suite with Singapore Airlines some 3,000 times between Europe and the United States. (Wonder if he’d be interested in donating a few of those points to those of us with smaller credit card limits?!)

The First Debit Card for U.S. Travelers to Cuba Is Now Available
Speaking of spending money, it’s just gotten a little bit easier for American travelers headed to Cuba. Skift reports that a Florida bank is offering a debit card for Americans to use for hotel stays, restaurant meals and other purchases in Cuba. The card will not yet work at the island’s ATMs, though this may change next year.

Clever Tricks That Fix Common Packing Problems
This fun slideshow from Frommer’s offers nine ingenious packing hacks — from hiding extra cash in an empty deodorant tube to using straws to keep your necklaces from tangling — complete with GIFs that show you how to execute each one.

7 Keys to Traveling Without Fear Despite Terrorist Attacks
Wendy Perrin offers wise, practical advice to those feeling understandably jittery about traveling in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali. She explains why terrorism is so frightening but points out just how unlikely each of us is to be caught in this type of scenario as compared to other travel risks (such as car accidents).

Finding VIP Travel Experiences: A Q&A with Wendy Perrin

As a reminder of the world’s beauty, we’ll wrap up this week’s travel round-up with an exquisite travel video from Bhutan, featuring golden Buddhas, fluttering prayer flags and friendly local faces creased with smiles.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Confession: I’m a habitual under-packer. On the surface that seems like a good thing — I never have to worry about lugging a heavy bag or paying checked baggage fees. But this seemingly good habit attracts other problems: I end up cold because I refused to pack a sweater that I declared too bulky, or I run out of hair conditioner midway through a trip and look like a fuzzy-headed mad scientist in half my photos.

Most people aim to pack less. I aim to pack smarter.

Thankfully, I discovered a smart woman who’s helping me: Sonia Gil, an online travel expert with an array of practical packing videos on her YouTube channel. After nearly two decades spent researching travel packing tips, I thought I’d heard it all. But I actually learned some new things from Gil, a spunky 34-year-old from Venezuela.

For instance, she doesn’t merely parrot rules about liquids needing to be in 3.4-ounce bottles — she actually recommends specific bottles, such as ones with wide mouths and made of ultra-squeezeable materials. (One of my biggest travel pet peeves: When half the lotion or shampoo remains lodged in an already-tiny bottle.) Check out her thoughts on “How to Achieve Carry-On Perfection” below:

Other great tips from Gil:

– A hotel hair dryer can do an adequate job of de-wrinkling clothes. No need to whip out the iron and ironing board (if your room even has one).

– If you’re traveling to a cold-weather destination, put a pair of insoles in your shoes. They’ll help keep your feet warmer.

– Use masking tape to seal toiletries so they don’t leak. Seal the opening itself and run a loop of tape around the lid seam. Before learning this tip I had put my toiletries in individual zipper bags, but that often left me with a mass of sticky bags that ended up going to waste.

– Tuck a few Band-Aids in your wallet. I always pack them in my toiletry bag, but how’s that useful when you’re out touring and end up with a cut or a blister miles away from your hotel? A no-brainer.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

Gil offers other fun and useful videos, including how to sleep on a plane, how to exchange currency and how not to gain weight when traveling.

–written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

travelwise packing cubesIf you consider packing a vocation and allocate every square inch of your suitcase using a color-coded spreadsheet, you’re probably already familiar with packing cubes, those soft-sided little rectangles of happiness that make organizing a snap and ensure you’ll pack light.

For the uninitiated, packing cubes are essentially rectangular zip-close bags that come in various sizes. They help keep clothes from wrinkling because they reduce shifting in luggage, and they allow travelers to make the best use of limited suitcase space.

TravelWise offers a 3-Piece Packing Cube Weekender Set that includes cubes in three sizes, ostensibly for those looking to organize for shorter trip. Here’s how they stacked up on trip in which they were used in conjunction with a standard carry-on suitcase.

The three sizes (11.5 inches by 6.75 inches by 3.75 inches; 13.75 by 9.75 by 3.75; and 17.5 by 12.75 by 4) make organizing simple, with smaller items like undergarments and socks fitting perfectly in the smallest cube and pants and blouses in larger two. All three cubes easily fit into a standard carry-on bag, with room for spare items like shoes.

The biggest cube seems unnecessarily large, though. Maybe I’m just a light packer, but for a weekend trip I probably could’ve left that one at home to make room for other odd-sized items.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Confession: I have been known to overpack cubes, leading to a burst zipper or two. TravelWise’s zippers are sturdy and easy to grip, and they pull smoothly. I didn’t test them to their max, but they withstood lots of repeated opening and closing.

Packing cubes are supposed to help you organize your items without bogging you down, so “lightweight” is essential to any materials. Made of nylon, TravelWise’s packing cubes are plenty light, with a mesh panel in the center of each. The mesh helps you identify what is in each cube at a glance so you aren’t stuck digging through to find things. This design also allows airflow, so I was able to pack dirty clothes in them for the return trip. The cubes require handwashing.

I often leave my clothes in the cubes, then just plop them in a drawer at the hotel when I arrive, so having a handle is a small convenience that makes grab-and-go that much easier. The handles on TravelWise’s cubes are durable, and they stand up to being hung from hangers, showerheads and hooks.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

The Bottom Line
Ultimately, there isn’t a lot of variation in packing cubes from brand to brand. Most high-quality cubes come in various sizes, are made of durable materials and have multiple color options. TravelWise’s cubes are slightly deeper than other brands I’ve used, which will accommodate more clothing without taking up significantly more space in your suitcase. They’re available through online retailers such as Amazon and retail for $39.95.

Want to win a set of gently used red packing cubes? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on October 27, 2014. We’ll pick one person at random to win the bag. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Roanne Coplin, who will receive a set of gently used packing cubes. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further chances to win.

— written by Colleen McDaniel

carry-on bagsIf you’ve ever been irked to see someone stride up to the gate at the airport with a massive carry-on and a second (or third … or fourth) bag that strains the definition of the term “personal item,” you’re not alone. A new hashtag called #CarryonShame is spreading on Twitter, calling out those fliers who seem to believe the entire overhead bin should belong to them.

The campaign is the brainchild of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Spud Hilton, who explains why he thinks it’s important in a post on the Bad Latitude blog: “If it were just passengers rationalizing their behavior as trying to cheat the airline out of checked baggage fees (or fliers just trying to save money), we wouldn’t care. But the increasingly aggressive disregard for the size standards — which has led to flight delays, a much longer boarding process, abusive passengers, and increased theft from gate-checked bags — also is disregard for everyone else on the plane.”

Hilton encourages travelers to snap photos of offending bags and tag their tweets with #CarryonShame; they may be retweeted by a dedicated Twitter account (@carryonshame) or even included in a gallery on SFGate.com.

What Not to Pack

Unfortunately, thanks to several airlines recently changing their carry-on size limits, it’s gotten a whole lot easier to go over the top — especially when, as Hilton points out, many suitcases marketed as carry-ons are actually too large: “We’ve started skulking around luggage and travel stores and have found that 40 percent of the bags labeled as carry-on that we measured did not meet standards for most airlines (45 linear inches, typically no more than 14 inches wide by 22 long by 9 deep).” Hilton urges travelers to post photos of these bags as well under the #CarryonShame hashtag.

Personally, I’ve got mixed feelings about #CarryonShame. On one hand, it drives me nuts when I have to gate-check my own carry-on because I’m in a late boarding group and there’s not enough overhead bin space. On the other, I prefer to travel solely with a carry-on — I don’t trust the airlines not to lose my luggage, and I hate waiting at baggage claim — so I bet I’ve exceeded the limit by a few inches here and there. My take: If I can fit my personal item under the seat in front of me and my carry-on in the bin wheels-first, it’s all good.

But I’d better look out for those #CarryonShame cameras, just in case.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

How do you feel about the oversized carry-on trend? Post your thoughts in the comments!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

pack suitcaseMost of us have that one treasured item we just can’t live without — even when we’re headed away on vacation. We make sure our “can’t live without” item finds its way into the bag, even if something more essential has to be left behind.

We here at IndependentTraveler.com have a theory, based on our collective years of experience: that the compulsion to pack the “can’t live without” item crosses all boundaries of personality type, race, gender and creed.

Maybe you’re sentimental and chuck out the spare pair of shoes in favor of your favorite childhood plush toy … or you’re superstitious and won’t board a plane, train or boat without your trusty good luck charm.

Even the more practical travelers among us — we who make our lists and organize our hermetically sealed suitcases alphabetically, cross-referenced against a color-coded spreadsheet — are not immune. We remember the passport and the tickets. We have twice the socks and underwear we could ever need and clothing for any occasion and eventuality. And we have it, too. The “can’t live without” item.

Readers Share Their Must-Pack Items

Copy editor Ashley Kosciolek brings at least three garbage bags — “one for dirty laundry and a couple extras in case it rains (can use ’em as ponchos or to keep wet/dirty clothes and shoes separate from everything else).” Senior editor Sarah Schlichter never leaves home without her travel journal, where she’s scribbled down years of notes about her favorite restaurants and most memorable experiences around the world.

And IT.com contributor Erica Silverstein doesn’t get on a plane without her husband’s lucky Christmas moose, even when she’s traveling alone: “I’m not a great flier, so I need something to clutch when it gets bumpy. If Adam’s around, I clutch him. If he’s not, I have a soft, cuddly moose.”

Quiz: What’s Your Packing Personality?

Now it’s your turn: What is it that you always pack when you when you travel? Tell us in the comments below.

— written by Jamey Bergman

2013 2014 beach new yearBefore we jump head first into 2014, we’re taking one last look back at the year that was. Of all the travel tips and trends we covered in 2013, there were a few that got our readers ranting, raving or simply laughing. Read on as we count down our 10 most popular blog posts of the past year.

10. Air New Zealand did it again. The airline known for its creative and hilarious in-flight safety videos came out with another winner in November, this time featuring the inimitable Betty White.

9. We reviewed and gave away dozens of travel products in 2013, but the biggest hit was the ultra-innovative Suitcase That Beats Bed Bugs.

8. When an Asiana Airlines plane crashed at San Francisco Airport in July, it spurred us to wonder: Where Are the Safest Seats on a Plane?

7. It isn’t often that we can bring readers good news from the travel industry, so when T-Mobile Eliminated Roaming Fees for Cell Phone Users Abroad, we and our fellow travelers rejoiced.

6. Few things get travelers more riled up than the topic of kids on planes. This year saw several Asian airlines introduce child-free zones on some of their flights — and while many of our readers were supportive of keeping kids as far away as possible, one parent took a different tack in her controversial Open Letter to People Who Hate Flying with Kids.

5. Turns out that even a so-called “travel expert” makes the occasional packing blunder. See what happens When a Travel Writer Ignores Her Own Advice.

4. A guest contributor from a currency exchange service shared his best practical tips in Buying Foreign Currency: Get More Bang for Your Buck.

3. Our post on 5 Signs You’re Not a True Traveler stirred up some strong emotions in the comments section. Reader Christy said our list was “spot on,” while Clare accused us of “imposing [a] very restrictive idea of what an experience must be.” What’s your take?

2. On a long, boring flight, leafing through the SkyMall catalog is always entertaining. Readers got a good laugh from our list of 9 Useless Items You Can Buy at 35,000 Feet, ranging from a mounted squirrel head to a porch potty for dogs.

1. Catching Zs while crammed into a tiny airplane seat is always a struggle. Could the perfect travel pillow help the cause? We reviewed four of them in Travel Pillow Challenge: The Quest for Good Airplane Sleep.

The Weirdest Travel News of 2013

— written by Sarah Schlichter

packingAs I prepare for my latest voyage, the packing checklist looks a lot like the usual, at least on the surface. New shoes? Absolutely. A few new items of clothing? Why not. A camera, raincoat and Kindle are also among the staples I lug around from one trip to the next.

But this is no “normal” voyage. On this trip — my first-ever soft adventure cruise — I’m traveling on International Expeditions’ 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica down the Peruvian Amazon, one of the most remote and exotic sections of this mighty river. And while pictures make the line’s new Amazonica ship look quite comfortable (nice touch: balconies with every cabin!), the places we’ll be visiting in the jungle might not be so forgiving.

My past cruise experience has focused on mainstream, luxury and European river lines, so for this otherworldly adventure I turned to International Expeditions’ recommended packing list.

Among the items: “strong” insect repellent, insect-bite relief products, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, tissue packs (for off-the-ship toilets), sunburn relief, and medication for diarrhea, altitude sickness and motion sickness. I also visited a doctor for a prescription for malaria pills, just in case, and to make sure my hepatitis A shot was up to date.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

As far as clothes go, a wide-brimmed straw hat came “highly recommended” (it’s actually kind of cute). I splurged on Skechers walking shoes and some not-so-flattering khaki cargo pants from L.L.Bean that I’m told will be a godsend (because they dry quickly). To avoid attracting insects, clothing in dark shades is highly discouraged — a challenge right there since my urban travel wardrobe revolves around black … everything. A forage to the back of my closet yielded treasures like white, linen, long-sleeved blouses (turns out I had three that were virtually identical!).

The niftiest tip on the list? On this cruise, a seven-night roundtrip from Peru‘s Iquitos, we will visit a local school, and passengers are encouraged to pick up supplies to donate. Tucked into my pile are Crayola markers, a box of pens, folders and notebooks.

The packing part of this adventure isn’t over yet. Even as I head to the airport for my flight to Lima, where I’ll meet up with fellow passengers before heading to the boat, I’m keenly aware of the one item I’ve failed to procure. Turns out piranhas, purring monkeys and bizarre puss caterpillars are not to be feared; the real predator on the Peruvian Amazon is the mighty skeeter, due to dengue fever (which doesn’t have a vaccine). Super-strong insect repellent is nowhere to be found in central New Jersey right now, where freezing temperatures mean there’s not a mosquito in sight and shops aren’t currently stocking the stuff.

I also failed to buy the recommended tube socks, which protect ankles from chiggers — but I’m not too worried. To this inveterate travel shopper, it’s just one more excuse to prowl around Lima’s shops before our group heads to the boat.

Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

— written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

suitcase boots Last Thursday I returned from my first trip to Alaska. Everything from the views to the food was fantastic. But part of what made my trip so enjoyable was that I was ready for just about anything, because I had read up on what I needed and had brought three specific must-pack items.

Layers: Having read many articles on how to prepare, I still struggled to find outfits that were suitable for both warm and cold weather without grossly overpacking. What I finally settled on were two pairs of jeans, several short- and long-sleeved shirts, a sweatshirt, a light jacket and a fleece jacket, with a pair of gloves and a headband to keep my ears warm. I kept an umbrella and poncho handy, too. “They” aren’t kidding when they say the weather can change at the drop of a hat. In Juneau, it was rainy and chilly, but not cold. In Skagway, it was cloudy and in the 40’s. In Ketchikan (which gets 13 feet of rain per year), it was sunny and in the 70’s.

Interactive Packing List

Proper Footwear: After my clothes, I tossed plenty of socks and three pairs of sturdy shoes into my suitcase, factoring in one pair for wet weather (waterproofed hiking boots), one pair for cold weather (sheepskin boots) and one pair for regular weather (sneakers or tennis shoes). Boy, were my feet happy.

How to Pack for a Galapagos Cruise

The Best Camera You Can Beg, Borrow or Buy: Sure, certain things in Alaska are overrated. (You can see similar mountains in several other places.) But you’ll want to snap some once-in-a-lifetime shots of what’s not so common elsewhere: grizzlies, dog-sled teams, Tlingit totems and, of course, glaciers, just to name a few. Most standard smartphones these days come with cameras that will do the trick just fine (and often better than any mainstream digital camera), so if you don’t own one, look into upgrading or borrowing one from a friend. You won’t regret it.

Best Local Spots to See Wildlife

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

rollnbandsThe last time I packed for a long trip, size did matter. I had to stuff as much as I could into one suitcase. Thankfully, it was a big suitcase. But this was a 12-day cruise, and I had to pack for a variety of weather and occasions — including formal night. That meant I needed to have as much room as possible at the top of the suitcase so my dresses wouldn’t crease.

Enter these nifty elastic bands called rollnbands, which you can use to wrap rolled pieces of clothing together to make more room. They were very helpful for compressing my T-shirts, workout clothing and PJ’s into a small space, leaving more room to pile in my folded items. (For those more organized than me, you could also use the bands to roll each day’s outfits together, so that all you have to do is grab a bundle before getting dressed in the morning.)

Fearing wrinkles, I didn’t feel comfortable trying to wrap my “nicer” items with the bands. That didn’t matter though, as the extra space provided by the tightly packed rolled items was more than enough to put my folded pieces on top. The larger bands proved more useful than the small ones, as a large band could wrap three to four items and a small band only wrapped two.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

I didn’t find rollnbands to be as helpful to me as packing cubes, which are more appropriate for clothing that’s easily wrinkled. But they work great for packing mushable items into a tight space in order to make room for clothing that needs a bit more room.

A pack of rollnbands comes with five small and five large bands and retails for $19.95.

Want to try them for yourself? We’re giving away a few of our gently used rollnbands. To win, just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on August 15, 2013. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the rollnbands. This giveaway is open only to residents of the lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. Reader Linda Conner has won the rollnbands. Stay tuned for further giveaways!

— written by Dori Saltzman

packing suitcase frustrated womanAs Senior Editor of IndependentTraveler.com, I’ve lost count of how many thousands of words I’ve written about how to travel more efficiently and intelligently. Many of those articles have been advice on how to pack — like tips for squeezing everything into a carry-on no matter how long the trip, and recognizing the signs of four common packing problems. So you’d think by now I’d be a perfect packer.

And yet…

On a recent trip to Toronto, I forgot to pack not one, not two, but five things that I typically bring when I travel. While I managed to remember the absolute essentials — passport, medications, underwear — a couple of the items I forgot were pretty important. Like, oh, toothpaste. I also left without pajamas to sleep in, gum to equalize ear pressure during takeoff, a black tank top (without which one of my other shirts was unwearable) and a plastic bag for dirty clothes.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too hard to replace most of these items. My hotel came through with a dental kit, I borrowed a T-shirt to sleep in from a friend and I picked up a pack of gum (in a plastic bag, no less) at the airport. But I couldn’t remember the last time I’d packed so poorly — and done so by ignoring so much of my own advice. In the spirit of learning from my own careless mistakes, here’s what I’ll do better next time:

Start packing a few days before the trip. I never remember everything I need to put on my packing list the first time I write it out; starting a few days early lets me add additional items as I think of them. For my Toronto trip, I was so busy in the days leading up to the trip that I simply threw everything into a bag the night before I left. That was strike one.

Quiz: What’s Your Packing Personality?

Recycle packing lists from past trips. Let’s face it — most of what we pack is the same for every trip. So why reinvent the wheel each time? I often dig up old packing lists and adapt them for whatever trip I’m currently taking (shameless plug: it’s easy to do that if you save a copy of our interactive packing list). Had I done this for Toronto, there’s no way I’d have forgotten such basics as PJ’s and chewing gum. Strike two.

Restock your toiletry bag each time you get home. I grabbed the same quart-size bag of liquids and gels that I’d used on my previous trip, not realizing that I’d run out of toothpaste and failed to put another tube in. And that’s why I ended up brushing solely with water my first night in Toronto. Strike three.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

Which travel mistakes have you made, even though you should’ve known better?

— written by Sarah Schlichter