Do you know someone who’s always on the road or in the air? You could gift that person with the standard inflatable pillow, ear plugs or luggage, but why not surprise him or her with the true comforts and conveniences of home instead? These items are practical and perfect for use on long international trips, from the plane to the hotel and everywhere in between.
This is the answer to every international traveler’s biggest problem: roaming charges. KnowRoaming is a prepaid data sticker that attaches to your phone (in a one-time application) and automatically switches to a local provider upon arrival in a new country. You can pay as you go (rates vary by country) and easily manage usage in the app so there aren’t any surprises; for heavy users, unlimited plans are also available for $7.99 per day. A bonus: Your actual phone number shows up when making calls.
Note: Before you buy this for a friend or family member, make sure you know what type of phone he or she has. KnowRoaming doesn’t operate on Blackberries or CDMA phones. Also, phones must be unlocked prior to a trip — this means network restrictions need to be removed so the phone can operate with a different SIM card. Check KnowRoaming.com for restrictions and guidelines by carrier.
Approximate Cost: $30
You’ve heard of multi-device chargers that don’t require outlets (if they’ve already been charged by one, of course), but Gomadic SunVolt doesn’t require outlets at any point. Why? It’s powered by solar energy. Up to two devices can charge at a time, and additional lithium polymer batteries can be purchased to store excess energy for nighttime charges.
Approximate Cost: $100
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Olloclip 4-in-1 Lens System
Maybe your giftee doesn’t want to lug a big camera and multiple lenses around during a three-week tour of Europe. Instead, consider the gift of an Olloclip 4-in1 Lens System (for iPhones). It offers four views: fish-eye, wide-angle and two macro options. It easily clips on to iPhones and comes with two lens caps and a carrying case.
Approximate Cost: $70
Kikkerland Music Branch 3-Way Headphone Splitter
There’s no need to share a set of headphones with this nifty, inexpensive gadget, ideal for traveling duos or trios. This earphone splitter offers three inputs so two or three people can watch a movie or listen to music together on a laptop (rather than squint at those small airplane screens). It’s also useful for couples with napping youngsters in tow.
Approximate Cost: $10
Satechi USB Portable Humidifier v.1
The Satechi USB Portable Humidifier connects to a water bottle and moistens dry air in hotel rooms (or even at home between trips) — perfect for rehydrating your nose and sinuses after a long-haul flight. When filled with cold water, it also acts as a mister to cool you off on hot days. Other functions include dim lighting for nighttime and aroma diffusing — just add liquid fragrances. To operate, plug into a USB port; it automatically shuts off after eight hours.
Approximate Cost: $30
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– written by Amanda Geronikos
On your next trip, you could go out for a nice, quiet dinner — or you could eat your meal behind bars … or underwater … or in a fancy restroom! At these one-of-a-kind restaurants, it’s not just about the food. In fact, meals take the back burner while ambience and unique entertainment steal the show.
Ithaa, Rangali Island, Maldives
Part of Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, this all-glass restaurant is situated underwater, some 16 feet below the surface of the ocean. It features 180-degree views in a small dining room that seats about 12, who are lucky enough to watch sea creatures sailing by as they dine on modern European cuisine.
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Alacatraz E.R., Tokyo, Japan
Not that you ever wanted to dine behind bars … but Alcatraz E.R. offers the chance in blood- and body part-splattered jail cells (fake, of course). Guests sip cocktails out of test tubes and mannequin heads, and during meals, you might find the lights going out as “escapees” enter the prison cells.
Photos: 12 Best Japan Experiences
Supperclub, Amsterdam, Netherlands
So maybe you don’t want to dine behind bars, but who doesn’t want to eat in bed? At Supperclub, four-course meals and cocktails are served on mattresses, housed in a dimly lit room. Guests also enjoy live, often interactive entertainment such as burlesque, vaudeville, cabaret and freak shows, along with music and art.
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Modern Toilet, Taipei, Taiwan
Normally, you want to avoid a trip to the bathroom following a meal, but at this restaurant, you’ll practically eat in the restroom. Patrons sit on toilets and at tables that resemble bathroom sinks. Meanwhile, more toilets adorn the walls. Drinks are served in glasses that look like urinals, and food is delivered in miniature porcelain thrones (and chocolate ice cream is on the menu).
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Le Refuge des Fondues, Paris, France
This tourist spot has gained attention for the way it serves wine: in baby bottles. It’s tiny, too — so tiny, in fact, that you might have to jump over a table to access seats along the wall (diners sit together at two long tables). Graffiti is encouraged (the walls are covered with it), and delicious fondue is served.
Photos: 12 Best France Experiences
The Pink Door, Seattle, U.S.A.
Hidden in an alley at Pike Place Market, the Pink Door isn’t just the name of the restaurant; it’s what you’ll need to search for to find the place (there aren’t any signs). Once inside, you’ll walk down a set of stairs — the restaurant is situated underground — to a small room lit by candles. Delicious Italian fare is served, but the real draw is the entertainment. A trapeze artist twirls and spins overhead on Sundays and Mondays, while Saturdays feature burlesque and cabaret shows.
– written by Amanda Geronikos
On a recent trip to Seattle, I found myself wishing I hadn’t stayed in Lower Queen Anne. Sure, it’s a nice, centrally located neighborhood near the Space Needle, but I could have easily spent an entire vacation in the quirkier neighborhoods of Fremont and Ballard. I was even more disappointed with my choice in Portland, where I ended up between financial institutions and chain coffee shops instead of breweries and wacky food carts.
I vowed to stay at a hotel in a “cool neighborhood” on my next urban getaway, but quickly discovered how rare of a concept that actually is. The majority of traditional hotels tend to be in or near the center of town; however, there are still options for accommodations in neighborhoods off the beaten path. Here’s how to find them.
1. Research City Neighborhoods
When planning a city vacation, do your research to find out which neighborhoods are the most unique. Reddit is a decent resource for this — many cities have their own page on which you can ask locals for suggestions. Convention and visitors bureaus are another valuable resource, especially if you can email or call someone directly to chat about options.
“I always look for good restaurants,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of our sister site, Cruise Critic. “There’s usually a good scene around good food.” She also suggests researching interesting shops, art galleries and local markets.
2. Search for Rentals
If you’re traveling internationally in particular, look to stay in an apartment or flat that’s far enough from the tourist traps, yet close enough that you can catch a bus or subway to the center of town. Apartments and flats provide a great means to feel like a resident while you’re in town — why not visit that local market for ingredients to cook a regional delicacy in your own rental kitchen?
“Serviced flats are another good option,” says Brown. She suggests Adina Apartment Hotels, which are located in Hungary, Denmark, Germany and Australia. Farnum and Christ is also reliable for accommodations in London, she says.
Airbnb and HomeAway are good choices as well, and both offer map views that let you easily pick out properties in the neighborhood you’re after.
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3. Consider a Bed and Breakfast
If you want the convenience of a hotel without the impersonal downtown location, search for a bed and breakfast. You won’t likely find many (if any) in the central areas of cities.
For example, a quick search of B&Bs in Chicago reveals Ray’s Bucktown B&B and Wicker Park Inn Bed and Breakfast. Bucktown/Wicker Park is a trendy, historic neighborhood in Chicago, and is a short, direct subway ride from the center of town. Another search for B&Bs in Venice shows B&B Ca’Bella in the area of Cannaregio, where many locals live. This area is off the beaten path and away from most of the crowds, yet within reasonable walking distance of the Rialto Bridge.
4. Consider a Travel Agent
Don’t underestimate the power of a good travel agent, especially if you don’t have time to research unique accommodations. A travel agent can help you find what you want, along with other points of interest so you feel prepared. “Look at magazine hot lists for travel agents,” Brown suggests. “These type of accommodations can be intimidating.”
– written by Amanda Geronikos
I’ve made plenty of mistakes while traveling. I’ve forgotten everything from a computer charger to a camera, and I’ve scheduled flights so close together that more than once I’ve pulled what I call “the ‘Home Alone’ run,” in which I scurry through the airport like the McCallisters, just barely making it to the gate before it closes.
On a recent trip to Italy, I made one of my biggest mistakes yet — but it led to one of my fondest travel memories to date.
During a trip to Lake Maggiore, a newfound friend and I decided to take a cable car to the top of Mottarone, a mountain that overlooks the lake and the town of Stresa. The experience had been recommended to us by a few locals, though one woman warned us not to miss the last ride down the mountain.
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Once there, we were rewarded with hiking trails and spectacular views (we could see seven different lakes and even a bit of Switzerland in the distance). We enjoyed ourselves so much that time flew quickly, and guess what? We missed the last ride down.
After we got past the initial “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” we found our way to the nearest business — actually, the only business; the restaurant was the only sign of civilization nearby. The owner, who barely spoke English, made a quick call, then told us it would be an hour before we could even get a taxi; after that, it would be at least a 45-minute drive and 60 euros back to our hotel. We were supposed to meet a group of friends for our last dinner together in Italy in an hour. We’d never make it.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”
My friend ordered a beer and started chatting with the owner. Still in a state of panic, I grabbed a beer too, and, at her order, sat down to “try to relax.”
The owner kindly offered us plates of meat, cheese and bread on the house, and began to tell us about himself. It turned out he was the former mayor of Stresa, and he planned to run for office again. The restaurant he owned dated back several generations, and his mother, who also spoke to us, still cooked up some of the area’s best dishes (“People like the meatballs,” she said). The family also owned a hotel (adjacent to the restaurant) that was popular during ski season.
Caught up in conversation, it was actually disappointing to leave when the taxi driver finally arrived. As he whisked the car down hairpin turns, my friend and I agreed: this unexpected conversation with the locals was travel at its best, and an experience neither of us would forget.
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– written by Amanda Geronikos
A few years ago, I considered my first solo trip (to Austria). Though I’d flown to Europe alone several times in the past, I’d always met familiar faces at the airport. This time around, I knew I’d want a similar kind of security — and that’s when I discovered Monograms through a travel agent.
Monograms — which operates in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia/New Zealand — helps travelers spend less time on trip planning by organizing hotels, airport and city transfers, and suggested itineraries. It also provides insight and help from trusted locals, should you want it. But as a traveler, you’re supposed to feel as though you’re on your own — not on a tour group vacation — the whole time.
I never took that trip to Austria, so when I recently received an opportunity to experience a Monograms vacation package — this time in Italy (the company’s most popular destination) — I happily accepted the offer. Read on to see what I loved about the trip, as well as didn’t work quite as well.
Convenience: Monograms packages include accommodations and complimentary breakfast at a centrally located hotel; a Local Host, who essentially acts as your personal concierge; organized sightseeing opportunities; and transfers between cities. Airport transfers are also included if you book your flight via Monograms. Shortly before the trip, visitors also receive an information packet with a (loose) itinerary and useful tips about the destination, such as electrical outlet guidelines, customary tipping procedures, emergency phone numbers and a weather forecast.
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Independence: As mentioned, select sightseeing opportunities are included in Monograms packages (though they’re certainly not mandatory), and are typically offered in half-day sessions. This allows plenty of free time to go it alone; in fact, you’ll feel like you’re on your own most of the time. Other excursions (like a gondola ride in Venice, for example) are available for an additional fee.
Local Insight: The most valuable feature of Monograms is the Local Hosts. While they can handle trip logistics and answer questions, they’re also a great resource for recommendations and inside tips. For instance, our Local Host, Igor, directed us to the best place to beat the crowds and view Venice’s Rialto Bridge (Campiello del Remer). Upon request, he also gave us a few history lessons via a spooky tour of the city at night. Local Hosts are helpful from a safety perspective as well — if you get in a bind, they’re just a phone call away.
Special Privileges: By traveling with Monograms, you can skip lines at attractions included in sightseeing tours. For example, I was allowed immediate access to St. Mark’s Basilica, Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Museo del Vetro (Murano Glass Museum) in Venice. Since the lines for these landmarks can get excruciatingly long, especially during the summer months, this is a welcome perk.
Group Sizes: Monograms doesn’t really limit the number of people who book vacation packages at one time, and some travel dates are just more popular than others. In this case, Monograms might split a group for sightseeing tours, but in the event it doesn’t, you’ll likely be walking around in a giant group like other tourists, headset in ear and all.
Tourist Trap-Heavy: To that effect, most of the sightseeing options included in Monograms itineraries are popular attractions, a k a tourist traps. While some are certainly worth the visit (I’m not sure who’d pass up a tour of the Eiffel Tower), many travelers might prefer to bypass the big names and spend their money on an entirely off-the-beaten-path getaway.
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By the way, I still plan to visit Austria, and when I do, it’ll more than likely be with Monograms.
– written by Amanda Geronikos