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trinidad cubaFor more than 50 years, Cuba has been a travel taboo for U.S. residents. Going there wasn’t technically prohibited — particularly if you were able to get special clearances as a journalist or Cuban expat, or if you traveled with an authorized tour operator — but spending money there was. Sure, there were ways around the restrictions, but this week we’ve gotten closer to the day when independent American travelers will no longer have to make sneaky pit stops in Mexico or Canada along the way.

Earlier this week, after Cuba and the U.S. came to an agreement that released prisoners on both ends and returned them to their home countries, the rules about spending money in Cuba were relaxed. Travelers will soon be able to use their credit and debit cards to make purchases on the island, and lovers of Cuban rum and cigars can rest easy knowing that won’t have to smuggle their Caribbean souvenirs back into the U.S. anymore (not that anyone has ever done that, of course).

Congress will discuss lifting further economic sanctions next year.

Cuba: Two Weeks to Remember

What does this mean for Cuba travel right now? Is it likely that you’ll be able to just pack your bags and book a trip on a whim without a U.S.-sanctioned reason? Not just yet. But anyone wishing to explore the country might find it easier to fit into one of the allowable categories (which include family visits, humanitarian projects, educational activities and “support for the Cuban people,” among others).

Are you interested in Cuba travel? Why or why not? Tell us in the comments below.

First Impressions of a Cuba Cruise

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

sandals beach vacationThis is part one of a two-part series about my experience with a “free vacation” offer. In this segment, I’ll outline how my friend and I “won” and what we had to endure to claim our “gift.” Check back for part two in 2015, when I’ll discuss if we were actually able to book a trip and, if so, how it went, if it’s worth the time and whether it’s really free.

We’ve all been there. You’re at a sporting event or a fair, and someone approaches you to “register for a chance to win a free vacation.” In my case, it was at a concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and my friend, who’s had a bit of a rough year, was excited by the prospect.

As she filled in her name and contact information, I snatched one of the entry forms and read the fine print on the back. It was standard legal jargon, stating that Sundance Vacations, the company sponsoring the contest, would have the right to get in touch with entrants using any means provided. I figured it was just a ploy to generate email addresses and phone numbers, so I declined.

Fast forward two months. My friend received a phone call from someone at Sundance, telling her they had “good news” and asking her to call for more information. First she dialed me: “Are you sitting down?” she asked. “I never win ANYTHING, but we’re going on vacation!”

A phone call to the company confirmed that we would, in fact, have to sit through a presentation as a condition of acceptance. We assumed a sales pitch would follow, but we were told the whole process would have us in and out within an hour.

Slightly different from companies that offer timeshares, Sundance sells “wholesale vacations,” which it touts as discounted or overstock trips that are less expensive because 1) the company purchases vacations in bulk, and 2) it owns the properties that are available for booking. (I won’t even try to figure out why Sundance needs to “purchase” said vacations if it owns the properties, lest my head explode.)

How to Avoid Travel Scams

During the initial presentation, an attractive and sharply dressed woman attempted to keep the attention of a dozen attendees through witty banter (“I’ll keep this short. I just ran a marathon yesterday, and my legs are killing me”), condescending comments (to a young and slightly disheveled couple with two children: “Surely you’ve never been to Disney World”) and the promise of a “suitcase” of affordable vacations from which we’d be able to draw over a period of several years after signing up and shelling out a modest monthly fee. She went on to explain a bit of math as she clicked through some PowerPoint slides.

polaroids sundance vacationsI had just checked Facebook for the 17th time and was nearly dozing off in my chair when a team of sales representatives came bursting through the back door of the presentation room like an army of Stormtroopers. Each group of visitors was led through a hallway and into a giant room with tables, chairs and, oddly, beach balls — where thousands (literally, we saw the Polaroids everywhere) of customers before us were convinced to purchase vacation packages.

The woman in charge of giving us our first hard sell was actually nice and didn’t pressure us as much as we expected she might. Then her boss came over, asked if we were treated well and turned up the heat by offering us an even sweeter deal. He backed down after we gave him a firm “no” and told him that we had read nothing but negative reviews about the company online. He gave us a couple of weak excuses but eventually realized we weren’t going to budge.

Ninety minutes after our initial arrival, we were taken to meet with our final obstacle, a friendly older gentleman who further lowered the prices and even tossed in meal vouchers. Ultimately, we said no, and he grudgingly gave us the paperwork we needed to claim our four-day, three-night trip to our choice of Cancun, Montego Bay or San Juan.

Apparently we have 60 days to call a phone number (not toll-free), ask questions, gather information (we’d love to see photos of the resort options, as none were provided) and “register” to receive our “reservation deposit invoice.” After receiving it, we have 30 days to send it back with a deposit of $100 each, which is then applied to the imposed taxes and fees of anywhere from about $100 – $185. (Technically the trip is a gift, not a prize, so Sundance isn’t required to cover taxes and fees.) We’re told the deposit is refundable until actual reservations have been made. Stay tuned for part two, coming sometime in 2015, when I’ll tell you whether the trip actually happens.

11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling

In the meantime, tell us if you’ve ever been a part of a “free vacation” offer. How did it work out?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

selfieMaybe you’ve landed on a glacier in Alaska, ridden a donkey in Greece or hiked to a mountaintop monastery in Tibet. Whatever the experience, it’s likely you’ve got photos to share or, at the very least, stories to tell. The question is: Should you?

With selfie rates at an all-time high and social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter just a tap away, it’s tough to exercise restraint when you’re excited about your once-in-a-lifetime trip. According to a recent New York Times article, though, your friends might not be quite as excited about your exploits as you are; if you’re not careful, your posts could be considered bragging.

For me, Facebook mainly functions as a storage facility for my photos. From there, they’re easy to find and reference, should I need to pull one of them for a story. I try my best not to caption them with anything other than facts, and you’ll rarely — if ever — see me posting photos of myself individually. Has anyone ever asked me to stop posting travel albums? No. Do people secretly want me to? Possibly.

If you’re one of those people, there are some quick and easy solutions: 1) Hide my content. I’ll never know. 2) Unfriend me. If my (infrequent) posts are that bothersome to you, we probably shouldn’t be friends anyway.

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

To those who actually do brag about their travel adventures, please stop ruining it for the rest of us. You’re as bad as people who take photos of every single piece of food they eat, let the world know that they’re at the gym by posting endless workout selfies or update their statuses whenever their children get sick … or say a new word … or use the bathroom. #obnoxious #reallyobnoxious #almostasobnoxiousaspeoplewhohashtageverythingfornoreason

When it comes to sharing about your travels on social media, what’s your take? Do you post, or do you keep your experiences to yourself? Be sure to leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

What’s your sign? Ours is funny. Whether it’s amusing verbiage from a place in the U.S. or a hilarious pictograph from a far-flung destination where there’s a language barrier, signs are everywhere. Have a peek at our latest collection, and feel free to share your own with us at feedback@independenttraveler.com.)

please do not feed feral cats or chickens

Kauai, Hawaii: Watch out for those feral chickens. We hear they’re vicious. (Photo by Peter Hamling)


no stops

Seattle, Washington: … or for anyone! (Photo by Cecilia Freeman)


humped zebra crossing

England: “It was just a basic crosswalk, but they call it a ‘humped zebra crossing.'” (Photo by Jessy Parkes)


prohibited sign

Honolulu, Hawaii: Imagine this: You’re arrested. Your friends ask you why, and you sheepishly admit you were caught — gasp! — playing horse shoes in the park. (Photo by Peter Hamling)


prohibited sign

Vancouver, Canada: Please don’t iron the … day bed? We have the Pan Pacific Hotel to thank for that helpful tidbit of advice. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek)


motorcycles prohibited sign

Bergen, Norway: Apparently Evel Knievel isn’t allowed in Bergen. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek)


cliff sign

Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania: Please refrain from hurling yourself off a cliff. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek)

Can’t get enough funny signs? Check out our first three installments of this series!

Silly Travel Signage
More Silly Travel Signs
Silly Travel Signs: Part Three!

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

mexico day of the deadIt’s that time of year again: Halloween! If you’re like most people in the U.S., you’ve carved jack-o’-lanterns, hung cornstalks and purchased candy in preparation for the adorable costume-clad beggars who will likely be knocking on your door dressed as witches and skeletons and ghosts. That’s the ideal scenario, but you might instead find yourself dealing with scantily clad teenagers who demand goodies and then egg your home when they’re turned away.

If you’re hoping to get out of Dodge for this potentially horrifying holiday, take a peek at how four other countries handle Halloween.

Ireland
Ireland is considered the birthplace of Halloween, which is based on Samhain, the annual Celtic festival that acknowledged dead walking among the living and marked the end of harvest season. Although Halloween in Ireland is now celebrated in much the same way as it is in the U.S., activities like bonfires and parties are generally front and center, especially for children, who can win small prizes like candy and coins by playing themed games.

Mexico
In Mexico, locals celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) over a two-day period that begins on November 1. Festivals, parties, food and themed activities mark the occasion, which coincides with the Catholic religion’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Skeletons have become synonymous with the holiday, which celebrates the lives of the departed rather than mourning their deaths.

Learn More About the Day of the Dead

China
Teng Chieh, China‘s version of Halloween, finds participants lighting lanterns to help guide the spirits of dead relatives, for whom they also leave refreshments. Some locals also choose to make paper boats, which are then burned to release the souls of those who have died but haven’t received proper burial.

France
If what you actually want to do is escape Halloween altogether, plan a trip to France. Although it becomes more well known there every year, thanks to North American influences, the holiday is still generally obscure and not widely celebrated.

Trick or Travel: The World’s Most Haunted Destinations

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

When I started my travel writing career, I assumed one of the perks would be staring at gorgeous photos of exotic destinations all day — and for the most part I was right. But every once in a while, the stock photo website I use to source images for my stories gives me results that are real doozies. With every seemingly normal search term comes a pile of not-so-normal stock photos that range from hilarious to disturbing. Need a laugh? Check out this small list of a few I recently stumbled upon.

What We Searched: beach holidays

What We Got:

tourist looking at skull
Clearly he’s Mr. December.


What We Searched: smartphone traveler

What We Got:

tourist looking at skull
#skullfie


What We Searched: fancy traveler

What We Got:

dog on beach chair
I guess he’s fancy … for a dog.


What We Searched: woman on plane

What We Got:

woman on plane
Doesn’t everyone fly in bikinis and heels?


What We Searched: angry traveler

What We Got:

angry flight attendant with knife
Don’t even think about asking for another bag of peanuts.


16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Next Tuesday marks the first official day of fall. As we mentally prepare for the autumnal equinox and the many glorious accouterments that come along with it — pumpkin spice everything — we’re bringing you our suggestions for some of the best places to enjoy the brilliant colors abroad. Read on for our picks.

Tuscany, Italy: Tuscany is romantic enough on its own, but when you throw in jaw-dropping colors (mid-September and October) and the crisp chill of fall, it’s a great place for anyone hoping to relax — particularly with a nice glass of wine.

a wine glass and grapes on a stone wall set against fall colors



11 Best Italy Experiences

Honshu, Japan: During November and December, this island bursts with fall colors, particularly in Kyoto, where fiery leaf hues surround local temples and koyo celebrations abound.

Buddhist Temple near Kyoto with fall colors all around



12 Best Japan Experiences

Nova Scotia, Canada: September and October are key months for this leaf-peeping destination. Set against picturesque lakes, the leaves there offer a worthwhile experience for travelers seeking an autumn respite closer to home.

fall colors



11 Best Canada Experiences

Bavaria, Germany: Couple bright, leafy landscapes with grand castles and mountain backdrops, and you’ve got a recipe for stunning autumn views. The best time to catch them is in October.

Bavarian castle with field and forest



12 Best Germany Experiences

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

borgund stave church norwayOn a recent trip to Norway, a member of the country’s tourism bureau told me that the number of U.S. visitors to Norway increased by about 40 percent in 2014 due to “Frozen.” That’s right — an animated Disney blockbuster for children boosted the number of travelers to the region by nearly half. That got us thinking about other movies that have spurred visits from loyal fans and, in some cases, even tours that feature the places where the actual filming took place. Read on for a list of some of the most notable ones.

“Frozen” (Norway)
Set in the Norwegian fjords, this story takes Anna, a princess, on a journey to find her sister with the help of a snowman. It sounds quirky, but Disney is now offering official “Adventures by Disney” tours of the region, which include stops in Bergen (on which Arendelle, the movie’s fictional setting, is based), as well as activities like rafting, hiking, fishing, dancing and fjord exploration.

“The Lord of the Rings” (New Zealand)
This famous fantasy series, shot entirely in New Zealand, had many filming locations within the country, including Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury and Fiordland, among others. Several companies like Lord of the Rings Tours offer guided excursions to various places seen in the movies, but you can also easily organize your own tour with the help of New Zealand Tourism’s resources.

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

“Anne of Green Gables” (Canada)
The classic novels and their made-for-TV counterparts still draw lots of visitors each year to Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, Canada. While there, you can get a feel for the place Anne called home and even tour Green Gables, the house that was used in the TV/film series; it has been decorated to look just like what you’ve imagined from the books.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” (Japan)
Set in Kyoto, Japan, a “Memoirs of a Geisha” tour — like this one offered by Japan for You — will take you to several of the movie’s shooting locations and expose you to Japanese food and culture through performances and trips to shrines, restaurants and tearooms. You’ll also have some free time to explore on your own.

The Top 5 Airlines for In-Flight Entertainment

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

airplane seatsTwo United Airlines passengers got one heck of a time-out on Sunday when an argument over a few inches of space escalated, leading to the rerouting of their plane.

According to the Associated Press, the fight began when an unnamed male passenger attached a Knee Defender — an apparatus that clips onto your tray table to prevent the person in front of you from reclining — to his seat so he could use his laptop uninterrupted. Although United Airlines has banned the gadget on its flights, the passenger refused to put it away when asked by members of the cabin crew, prompting the unnamed woman in front of him to throw a cup of water in his direction.

At that point, the Denver-bound flight, which departed from Newark earlier that day, was only halfway to its destination when the pilot made an unscheduled landing at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to have both passengers removed.

Although police met the plane when it landed and questioned both passengers, it was deemed to be a customer service issue, and no arrests were made.

The kicker here, though, is that both passengers were sitting in the plane’s Economy Plus section, which already offers more legroom than standard economy seats to begin with.

The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room

So what do our readers think about space and whether fliers are entitled to it?

“As tight as seats are getting, they should not recline,” says Julie Reiss Justice on Facebook. “I have had my iPad smashed from a seat reclining quickly … I personally will not recline.”

Tom Vertrees agrees that space is limited, but comes to the opposite conclusion: “Airlines shouldn’t squeeze seats so close together in the first place. If the seat reclines then it should be allowed.”

And Joshua Senzer wonders why the situation escalated so far in the first place: “The device is banned by United, the carrier in question. The fact that the individual failed to comply with [flight attendant] requests to remove it is telling in regards to those who would rather use something like this than simply attempt communication with another human … just my .02.”

10 Annoying Habits of Our Fellow Travelers

What do you think? Is it rude for passengers to recline their seats? Should the use of devices like Knee Defender be allowed? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

ebags exo suitcaseOn a recent 10-day trip to Norway, I packed everything but the kitchen sink into one of eBags’ EXO 2.0 24-inch spinner suitcases. If you’ve been considering a new piece of luggage, you’ll want to read on — not just for a rundown of my experience with the bag but also for a chance to win an EXO 2.0 of your very own.

Exterior
Liked: The exterior of the EXO 2.0 is made of polycarbonate, which means it’s insanely durable. The case I tested made it through four flights with only minor scratches, thanks to the crosshatch-type pattern on the shell, which helps to reduce the visibility of such mishaps.

Didn’t Like: Although functional, the crosshatch exterior design doesn’t exactly look nice. I was initially excited when I learned the bag I’d be trying was red, but I quickly discovered red isn’t as uncommon on airport conveyor belts as you might think. I’d recommend trying one of the other available bright colors like purple or yellow. (Standard colors like black and gray are options too.)

Interior
Liked: There’s a ton of space, and I found that the main compartment’s straps helped to keep my abundance of clothing contained. A separate compartment, offset by a full swath of zippable mesh, was great for separating everything from shoes to dirty laundry from the rest of my stuff.

Didn’t Like: There are no additional pockets or compartments, which can make the packing of smaller items a challenge. eBags touts the fact that the EXO 2.0’s main compartment has a removable, adjustable shelf (attached to the interior of the suitcase via Velcro) to keep packed items from shifting or crushing each other. I didn’t find it to be all that useful because I packed enough to ensure no shifting would take place. It might come in handy for separating clean clothes from dirty ones or your clothes from those of a travel companion if you’re sharing luggage.

Wheels
Liked: The wheels are durable with a double-wheel construction, which means that your bag is less likely to tip over if you leave it upright.

Didn’t Like: Because of the dual-wheel configuration, the suitcase has a wider base, making it a little more difficult to maneuver than one with a single-wheel design. But the wider base is also what keeps the bag from toppling over, so it’s a trade-off.

Handles
Liked: All handles (adjustable handle used for dragging and top/side handles used for lifting) are sleek in appearance and are nearly flush with the sides of the case for a streamlined look. Plus, the extendable handle used for pulling the bag adjusts to three different heights.

Didn’t Like: Because the handles are recessed with little clearance, it can be difficult to get your fingers under them to lift luggage in a hurry (for example, grabbing your bag off of the conveyor belt). Combine that with the suitcase’s rough crosshatch exterior, and you’ve got a recipe for skinned knuckles. I also found the extendable handle to be a little on the flimsy side, given the overall size of the luggage.

Lock
ebags exo suitcase zippers lockLiked: As someone who routinely uses removable luggage locks, I love the idea of a suitcase that’s got a lock built in. No more worrying about losing the lock or fumbling to be sure it’s passed through both zippers when you try to re-secure everything. The built-in version is TSA-friendly, and the instructions for using it are a piece of cake.

Didn’t Like: Although setting the lock’s combination was easy, it took me a few minutes to figure out that the zipper pulls actually slide into openings to the right of the lock in order to secure the case. Beyond that, it took me even longer to discover that the only way to keep the zipper from partially gaping when locked (leaving a small opening into the main suitcase compartment) is to crisscross the zippers and then secure them. (The bag’s specs do mention that it has “patent-pending cross-over X zipper pullers,” but I had no idea what that meant.)

Overall
The EXO 2.0 is a durable, lightweight suitcase that offers some innovative features with the crisscross zippers, interior shelf and crosshatch exterior design. It’s currently available on the eBags website for $160, and it comes with a lifetime eBags warranty, exchange or return. In spite of the minor issues I had, it’s a solid choice overall.

If you’d like to enter to win a brand-new EXO 2.0 hardside suitcase, leave us a message in the comments by 11:59 p.m. ET on September 1, 2014. We’ll pick one winner at random. 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.

If you can’t wait until we pick a winner to do some eBags shopping, click here to get 15 percent off your purchase and free shipping on orders of more than $49. This discount is good through September 4, 2014.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Andrew P. Stay tuned for more chances to win!

– written by Ashley Kosciolek