After a week in Florida for a travel conference, my return flight to the Northeast was pushed back by 24 hours due to a snowstorm. Spending an extra day in the sunny weather certainly wasn’t cause for complaint, so I embraced the delay by visiting family and making my way to Universal Studios. But somewhere in between was the stuff of nightmares.
The logistics of finding a same-day hotel are irritating enough, but trying to do it in a busy resort town like Orlando — during spring break, when everyone else has made arrangements months in advance — is even worse. The result? The top five hotels near Universal were all full when I called. Then I tried the HotelTonight app but was disappointed by what appeared to be unreasonably high prices and limited availability, so I figured I’d try the next town over. Tired, grumpy and hoping to offset the hundreds of dollars I’d spend the following day to drink butterbeer in the presence of other Harry Potter-obsessed Muggles, I Googled “cheap hotels near Altamonte Springs.” Big mistake.
Finding Hotel Rooms: No Vacancy? No Problem
I was surprised to find a line of cars waiting at the front entrance to the Days Inn when I arrived. Confused, I parked and grabbed my suitcase, figuring I’d head to the lobby to check in. What greeted me were two locked doors, a sign that read “Lobby doors locked after 9 p.m. Use intercom” and a line of annoyed people standing in front of what looked like a window from which you’d order ice cream after a round of mini-golf. It took nearly 40 minutes to check in and finally get my key.
Once in the room, my first order of business was to use the facilities. Or at least that was my intention until I turned on the light and sent a couple of roaches frantically scurrying away. I screamed, jumped three feet in the air and then made quick work of them with the sole of my shoe and some tissues. When my pulse returned to normal, I scoured the bathroom for any remaining stragglers and sat down to use the toilet — which I quickly discovered wasn’t attached to the floor. (In all fairness, someone had tried to fix it several times, as was evident from about two inches of caulking surrounding its base.)
The one mercy was that I didn’t spot any bed bugs — but mildew, more roaches, dirty sheets (which were inside-out and adorned with someone else’s hair), a slashed mattress and stained, threadbare towels had me on the phone for an hour, calling nine different area hotels with the hope of getting the heck out of there. No luck. Everything was full, and sweating to death in the car overnight wasn’t an option.
How to Find a Clean Hotel Room
Ultimately, I left every single light on to scare off the roaches and dozed for a few minutes here and there, but it was the single worst night of sleep I’ve had in a long time. Possibly ever. As a frequent traveler, I’ve stayed in many hotels — everything from one-star to five-star — and I’ve never encountered a room so filthy. However, I have nobody to blame but myself … and perhaps the roaches that took up residence in the space I paid for.
At the time, I was proud of scoring a room for $120. Right now, what I’m not so proud of was my failure to consider anything but price. In fact, as someone who’s worked for a TripAdvisor company for quite some time, I’m downright ashamed.
Moral of the story: Always, always, always research. See what others have to say. If the price is abnormally low, there’s probably a reason. If a hotel has availability in a town where accommodations are otherwise booked solid, turn around and sprint in the other direction, no matter how desperate you are. It’s cliche, but you get what you pay for; don’t let an extra hundred dollars make the difference between loving and hating your vacation.
The 10 Worst Hotel Horror Stories
Have you ever found yourself stuck at a nightmare hotel?
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.
If you could travel between New York and Philly in 10 minutes, would you? What about going from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 20? It sounds crazy, but it’s not so far-fetched, according to Forbes.
In 2013, Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX and CEO of Tesla Motors, unveiled his idea for the hyperloop — a form of transportation that would move passengers from city to city at roughly the speed of sound via a network of vacuum tubes.
Two years later, three companies, all headed by teams of people close to Musk, are pushing to make the technology come to life. However, even with millions of dollars in funding at the ready, there’s still a long way to go. Safety issues need to be addressed. The logistics of actually constructing the transportation network still need to be hammered out. And what effects, exactly, would moving at such high speeds have on the human body?
Space: Ballooning’s Final Frontier?
Forbes’ report says that, at least initially, the project would focus on moving cargo from one place to another (possibly even through underwater tubes), so perhaps that human body bit wouldn’t come into play right away. But the rush to get the project moving is well under way, given that it would beat the pants off of air travel time and cost less than taking a train. Plus, since no carbon dioxide would be emitted by the capsules, it seems like it would be far more environmentally friendly than any currently existing form of getting around. (Note: The system would still be responsible for some carbon emissions, according to one expert, who believes the solar panels in Musk’s original plan would need to be supplemented with coal power.)
Musk has also said he’ll likely be funding a prototype track in Texas.
What do you think? Would you try this type of travel? Leave your comments below.
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
SkyMall — the catalog of quirky, useless and overpriced items for purchase at 35,000 feet — declared bankruptcy and halted its print publication on January 16. Below, I pay tribute to my favorite source of entertainment in the air.
Our hearts are heavy today as we mourn the loss of an old friend. A stalwart travel companion on many a flight, SkyMall kept us sane when screaming babies and snoring rowmates were just too much to bear. When our hard-earned paychecks were burning holes in our pockets. When the lack of cabin pressure convinced us we absolutely needed a life-size Sasquatch garden statue. (Seriously, if nobody’s ever gotten a good look at Sasquatch, how do they know what size to make the statue, anyway?)
Born to proud parent Robert Worsley (founder and current Arizona state senator) in 1990, SkyMall loved long flights, traveling the world and the feeling of recycled cabin air rustling through its glossy pages — pages offering senseless tchotchkes and gadgets that beckoned to us, begging us to embrace our impulses. Marshmallow shooters. Space helmets that regrow hair. Pajama pants that look like jeans. The options were seemingly endless, blatantly ridiculous and, frankly, downright awesome.
One of my favorite SkyMall memories takes me back to a time when I flew home from Chicago in major turbulence. It wasn’t long before a few strong bumps caused my travel companion to spill a full cup of water all over my tray table and everything on it. Even though I hadn’t paid it much attention on that particular flight, SkyMall was there to help me sop up the mess in all my napkinless glory.
We may have come to terms with the grim reality of SkyMall’s death, but the pain still haunts us. Never again will we feel the magazine’s slender figure, admire its red block logo or accidentally stab ourselves in the thumb with one of its quality staples. For the first time in history, we’ll look at the “Free copy — Take it. We’ll replace it!” line on the front of the few remaining copies so tenderly clutched to our chests and hold back tears as we realize: No, SkyMall. No, you will not replace it. The demise of this novelty reminds us that life is short. Taken from us too soon at the tender age of 25, by the dastardly likes of Candy Crush Saga and in-flight Wi-Fi, the catalog and its marked absence will forever leave a hole in our souls and a void in our seatback pockets.
But just when we thought that void might be filled by fatter wallets and a decline in junky knickknacks, we learned that SkyMall’s website is still alive and kicking. Apparently it listened when we pleaded for it to stay away from the light.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a pizza-scented T-shirt calling my name.
The Best of SkyMall:
9 Useless Items You Can Buy at 35,000 Feet
7 More Useless Items You Can Buy at 35,000 Feet
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
Southwest Airlines, long known for its inexpensive fares, unassigned seating, free checked bags and singing flight attendants, is now jumping into the world of fashion. Partnering with an Oregon-based company, the airline has turned scrap leather from its airplane seats into high-end handbags.
According to Forbes, Southwest was left with 43 acres of used leather after replacing seats on some of its aircraft with lighter ones to reduce fuel costs. It took most of the material to Looptworks, a company that uses industrial scraps to create unique pieces that reduce waste and aim to help the environment, where it will be made into vintage-inspired bags. (In another admirable move, Southwest also sent some of the leather abroad to SOS Kenya, which benefits orphaned children, and Massai Treads, which makes shoes for people in need.)
Looptworks is offering three bag designs — backpack, duffel and tote — which can be preordered as part of what has been dubbed “Project LUV Seat.” The company claims that each bag produced saves 4,000 gallons of water and reduces CO2 emissions by 72 percent (when compared with what would be required to use brand-new leather for the same bags).
As if this idea couldn’t get any more awesome, Looptworks employed disabled adults to deconstruct and clean the leather.
Part-Time Voluntourism: How to Give Back During a Trip
The irony, though, is that the bags are retailing for anywhere from $150 to $250 each — more than the cost of some of Southwest’s roundtrip flights.
Would you purchase one of these bags? Leave your comments below.
–written by Ashley Kosciolek
Every once in a while, a stellar airfare deal presents itself. Generally, though, the cost of a flight is enough to fund an entire week’s vacation at a place within driving distance, and it makes me sick to have to pay it. What’s a budget-strapped globetrotter to do?
Apparently there’s a little-known loophole in town, and it’s called hidden city ticketing. Say, for example, you want to fly nonstop from Newark to Phoenix, and the cheapest fare you can find is $494. It turns out that the same airline offers a flight from Newark to Los Angeles, by way of a stop in Phoenix, for just $304. All you need to do is book the second flight, take carry-on luggage only and not show up for the second leg of the trip. You’ll get to your destination for almost $200 less.
However, it can be a pain to do the legwork to find such flights; that’s where Skiplagged.com can help. Created by Aktarer Zaman, a 22-year-old techie from Brooklyn, the site is currently rubbing a few airlines the wrong way. According to The Higher Learning, United Airlines and Orbitz are suing Zaman, claiming “unfair competition” and seeking $75,000 in compensation for lost revenue.
Although hidden city ticketing has been around for years, whether it’s actually allowed is questionable. Skiplagged simply allows potential travelers to search for hidden cities more quickly and easily, but many airlines prohibit this type of booking.
Note that it’s not a particularly sound method of finding airfare if you check bags, as they’ll end up at your ticket’s final destination instead of yours. Hidden city tickets also don’t work for roundtrip flights; if you don’t show up for the second leg of your outgoing flight, it’s likely the airline will consider you a no-show and cancel your return ticket altogether.
How to Hack Your Way to a Cheaper Airfare
Have you tried this method of finding less expensive fares? Do you think it’s “unfair competition”? Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below.
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
For 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
This 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.
I 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
Maybe 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 email@example.com.)
Kauai, Hawaii: Watch out for those feral chickens. We hear they’re vicious. (Photo by Peter Hamling)
Seattle, Washington: … or for anyone! (Photo by Cecilia Freeman)
England: “It was just a basic crosswalk, but they call it a ‘humped zebra crossing.'” (Photo by Jessy Parkes)
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)
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)
Bergen, Norway: Apparently Evel Knievel isn’t allowed in Bergen. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek)
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
It’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 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.
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
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.
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