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j bullivant solar backpackAlways excited to test out gadgets that might make my travels easier, I set off for Alaska last month with the Solar Backpack from J. Bullivant, a company that specializes in what it calls “Urban Survival Gear.” The pack is equipped with enough pockets and compartments to fit everything but the kitchen sink, as well as built-in solar panels for charging what’s known as a Personal Power Generator (PPG) — a tiny power pack for charging a cell phone or iPad when your devices are dead and there just aren’t enough outlets.

When it comes to the bag’s construction, I have no complaints. It’s comfortable, attractive, lightweight and durable. (Anything that survives my chronic overpacking has to be.) The storage options are plentiful, with spots specifically designed to hold everything from laptops and pens to car keys and spare change. There are even hidden compartments for more important items like passports and wallets.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

But this backpack’s claim to fame is its ability to charge electronics — and unfortunately, in that regard it was a bit of a bust. After two days of putting the pack in the sun for several hours, I saw no increase in the charge it gave to the PPG. It does work well if you use the included power/car adapter to plug the PPG directly into the wall to charge, but if you’re going to spend time and effort doing that, you might as well just plug in your cell phone or laptop or whatever it is you need the PPG for in the first place.

Of course, the semi-functionality of the product wouldn’t be such a big deal if it were priced in line with other backpacks. But for the most basic model, you can expect to shell out nearly $200. The amount you’ll pay increases from there, depending on what else — pepper spray, hazmat mask, water purification system, ballistic shield — you choose to add to your paranoia pack. (And no, we’re not kidding about anything in that list.)

All things considered, this is a great item to own if you’re active and need to keep your things organized on the go. The PPG is an added bonus if you have access to a car or wall outlet, but don’t get too hung up on the solar panel “cool” factor.

The Suitcase That Beats Bed Bugs

Want to try it for yourself? We’re giving away our (gently used) Solar Backpack. Just leave us a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on October 31, 2013. We’ll pick one person at random to win the backpack. 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. Frannie Heath has won the backpack. Congratulations! Keep an eye on our blog for further chances to win.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

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

hemingway home catHi, my name is Ashley, and I’m a crazy cat lady.

Okay, I like to think I’m not too crazy, but I did adopt a fifth cat last weekend. Of course, I still love to travel, so I got to wondering where my fellow crazy cat ladies and I might go on vacation if we wanted to indulge our passion. Assuming we’re not seeking a fur-free escape, here’s a small list of possibilities.

De Poezenboot (The Cat Boat), Amsterdam, Netherlands
Located along the Singel Canal, this floating cat sanctuary is home to up to 50 cats at any given time. Started by Henriette van Weelde in 1966 when she took a family of stray cats into her residence, De Poezenboot quickly expanded to a barge and then a house boat as the number of cats in need of homes continued to grow. You can stop in to see the kitties, make donations and buy souvenir T-shirts from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. daily, except Sundays and Wednesdays, at Singel 38 G.

Our Favorite Hotels in Amsterdam

Tashirojima Island (Cat Island), Ishinomaki, Miyagi, Japan
Years ago, when silk production was at its peak there, the island’s inhabitants used cats to keep the mouse population to a minimum. (Mice are a threat to silkworms.) Stray cats now outnumber the island’s 100 residents. You can access the island via ferry from Ishinomaki City.

Hemingway Home, Key West, Florida, United States
This one will appeal to crazy cat ladies and literature buffs alike. Home to the late author Ernest Hemingway, this historic building — also a museum — has between 40 and 50 cats in residence. All of the felines are polydactyls (or carry the polydactyl gene), which means many have paws with what appear to be tiny, furry thumbs. It’s said that many of these cats are descendents of Hemingway’s original pet cat, Snowball, who was also a polydactyl. Tours of the house are available every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 907 Whitehead Street.

Learn More About Key West

The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas, United States
A landmark that housed missionaries in the 1700’s, the Alamo is most famous for its role in the Texas Revolution. Resident cats have roamed the area before, but perhaps the most famous is the Alamo’s current feline, Clara Carmack or C.C. (named after Clara Driscoll and Mary Carmack, who played important roles in the building’s preservation). Visit for a dose of history and a possible C.C. sighting every day, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at 300 Alamo Plaza. (Read about one IndependentTraveler.com reader’s quest to see C.C. the Alamo Cat!)

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

town names that make us giggle A native Pennsylvanian, I’m familiar with lots of towns in the Northeast, and I always crack a smile when someone makes a joke about Virginville or Bird-in-Hand (both in Pennsylvania). Eager to defend my home state, I set out to find equally cringe-worthy town names in other states across the United States. Below is an alphabetical list of the 15 I found to be most amusing.

Acme, West Virginia
Boring, Oregon
Disappointment, Kentucky
Embarrass, Minnesota
Fart, Virginia
Hell, Michigan
Hot Coffee, Mississippi
Intercourse, Pennsylvania
My Large Intestine, Texas
No Name, Colorado
Normal, Illinois
Odd, West Virginia
Okay, Oklahoma (also known as Okay, OK)
Poopoo, Hawaii
Truth or Consequences, New Mexico



The World’s Weirdest Museums

Which crazy towns have you heard of? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

spinning globeImagine this: you’ve planned a fun (or, depending on your circumstances, maybe not so fun) trip, and you’re at the airport, packed and ready to go. Then the vacation fairy comes along and offers to voluntarily throw a wrench in your itinerary. Would you take her up on it?

The idea comes from Heineken’s new ad campaign. It doesn’t involve a fairy, but, rather, four guys who are randomly plunked down in remote locations, and their adventures documented. As part of the promotion, reports AdWeek, Heineken’s marketing agency set up a game of “Departure Roulette” at New York’s JFK airport last week, asking travelers to forgo their scheduled plans on a whim by pushing a big red button to determine a new, more exotic destination (with hotels and spending money provided by Heineken).

I have to admit that I’m a planner, and one of my worst fears is being stuck someplace foreign without knowing precisely when I’ll arrive home (or, in this case, at my original destination). I don’t like disruptions to my itineraries, and, since not all destinations appeal to me, I’m not sure I’d take the risk (lest I end up like one fellow, whose planned trip to Vienna to visit his grandparents rerouted him to Cyprus instead).

Planning vs. Spontaneity: Which Do You Prefer?

Regardless of whether or not you like Heineken, it’s a crazy — but fun — idea. And it brings us to the question of the day: Would you switch (or have you already switched) your plans at the last minute in hopes of more exciting travel? What would be your ideal far-flung destination? Share your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Just when you thought SkyMall’s offerings couldn’t get any more ridiculous, we’re back with another round of silliness as a follow-up to 9 Useless Items You Can Buy at 35,000 Feet, straight from the company’s summer 2013 catalog.

Editor’s Note: Click on the thumbnail images for a larger view of each product.

singing toothbrush7. Singing Toothbrush: Just can’t get enough of Justin Bieber? Bring him into the bathroom with you … while you brush your teeth, that is. This toothbrush plays your choice of tunes from the Biebs, Lady Gaga, LMFAO or Psy for two minutes while you clean your pearly whites. Fun? Sure. Necessary? At $14.99 each, not so much.

rednek party cup6. Rednek Party Cup: Let everyone know that you’re classier than the average frat boy at your next cocktail get-together with these melamine and glass cups. They’re whimsical, and they’re useful, but at $12.95 apiece, we wouldn’t recommend using them for beer pong.

mademoiselle floor lamp5. Mademoiselle Floor Lamp: Looking for the perfect accent piece to decorate your home’s dungeon in the basement? Resembling a headless woman wrapped in faux leather, this lamp will surely fit the bill. Speaking of the bill, this conversation-starter will set you back $499 (not including $99 for shipping and handling).

replacement collar dress shirt4. Replacement Collar Dress Shirt: Perfect for the lazy, white-collar (no pun intended) bachelor, this snazzy dress shirt comes with two removable collars. When one gets dirty or wears out, simply replace it with a new one via Velcro strips. For just $29.99, you can eliminate unsightly collar-sweat stains … and any chance of finding a date for this weekend. It’s a shame this must-have fashion piece doesn’t also come with replaceable armpits.

toppik hair building fibers3. Toppik Hair Building Fibers: Correct the appearance of thinning hair with this … stuff. What we’ve gathered from the description is that it’s basically colored baby powder that’s sprinkled onto existing hair to create the appearance of a thicker mane. Choose from nine different colors for $21.95, and watch as it stands up to “wind, rain and perspiration.” We hear it also outlasts nuclear winter, withstands chicken pox and repels telemarketers.

zombie of montclaire moors2. Zombie of Montclaire Moors: For just $99.95, this creepy zombie garden statue will make it look like the undead are pushing daisies from under that pristine flower bed you just planted in your backyard. Some assembly is required — it ships in three pieces. (Tip: Place one of his arms in a nearby birdbath for a more authentic look.)

humunga tongue1. Humunga Lips, Tongue and ‘Stache: Would your dog look better with a mustache or a pair of bright red lips? We didn’t think so, but apparently the weird-stuff purveyors at What on Earth did. These comical canine rubber balls come with a tongue, a mustache or lips attached. They’ll set you back anywhere from $12.95 to $17.95 each, depending on size.

The Most Awkward Moments in Travel
16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

sea turtle babyI love animals, and I love travel. Combine the two, and I’m all smiles. Whether it’s volunteer work, taking a tour or finding a new pet, there are lots of ways to involve yourself with different species while you travel close to home. Below is a list of five examples. Feel free to add your own in the comments, too.

Sea Turtle Release

This annual occurrence — generally late-June through mid-August — at Padre Island National Seashore in Corpus Christi, Texas, allows spectators to watch as groups of newly hatched baby sea turtles are gently nudged toward the sea by park officials. Anywhere from 15 to 25 releases per year are open to the public.

Manatee Observation

Florida is a great place to catch a glimpse of manatees in the wild. A perfect spot to see them is at Lee County Manatee Park in Fort Myers, Florida. Just remember: they’re wild animals, so don’t touch them as you enjoy the views of them swimming around in front of you.

Hermit Crab Adoption

If you’re in the market for a low-maintenance pet, stop by Jenkinson’s Pier in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, and purchase some hermit crabs. Be sure to buy at least two, as they’re social animals who thrive in groups. Keep in mind, though, that they aren’t throw-away pets, and they do require a small level of care.

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

Miniature Horse Rehabilitation

Volunteer at the Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue in Mandan, North Dakota, where abused and unwanted miniature horses are brought to live or be rehabilitated for adoption.

Cow-Milking on a Working Dairy Farm

Try your hand at milking a cow, and interact with goats at Hinchley’s Dairy Farm in Cambridge, Wisconsin, which offers tours three times a day from April through October.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

airport securityFollowing an outpouring of opposition from flight attendants and government officials, the Transportation Security Administration recently decided to scrap its plan to allow passengers to carry small knives (of 2.36 inches or less) once again on planes — a practice that’s been prohibited since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

It got us thinking: while some travel-related policies are meant to keep us safe — like the in-cabin knife ban that has been upheld — there are others that seem to serve no purpose whatsoever for consumers. Below, we examine four of them.

Currency Conversion Charges
If you’ve ever used your credit card abroad and been hit with fees for currency conversion, you’re not alone. In some cases, the fees are a percentage of the amount charged — which can add up to a heck of a lot if you’re paying for something expensive like a hotel room. Does it really cost anything for card companies to convert the charges, or is it just one more way for them to make money?

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

Airport Security Shoe Removal
If I’m wearing tall, cavernous boots that could hide a bomb or stilettos so high they might double as weaponry, I understand this rule; if I’m wearing flip-flops, I don’t. But wait! The TSA is making exceptions of late. If you’re really young or really old, you can leave your shoes on. As we all know, terrorists are only between the ages of 13 and 74.

Nontransferable Tickets
It’s a concept that’s so rigid it serves only to sell more seats on planes. Life happens, and, sure, airlines can accommodate changes … for the right price, of course. Spelled your name wrong during the booking process? Perhaps you’ll get a sympathetic ear on the phone, and you’ll be allowed to change it without too much of a hassle. Or maybe you’ll be forced to pay a change fee or, worse yet, rebook completely. But forget about simply switching the name on your companion ticket if your flaky friend decides she can’t accompany you on that expensive vacation after all.

What Not to Do at the Airport

Mandatory Extra Fees
Raise your hand if you’ve booked a hotel or a rental car for one price and been slapped with “mandatory extras” after the fact. I recently took a trip to the Dominican Republic, where the driving conditions are so perilous that I was forced to pay for insurance on my rental car, even though my insurance provider back in the U.S. had me covered. And let’s not forget about the time I went to Las Vegas with friends, only to be pummeled with a “resort fee” because — gasp! — our hotel had a pool (which, to be honest, is a standard amenity at any hotel worth its salt). Let’s get it straight: if something is “mandatory,” it’s not an “extra” — it’s part of the price.

Which travel policies do you think are silly, unfair or outdated? Post them in the comments.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

unhappy travelerAs is the case with most things, air travel has come a long way. Gone are the days of breezing into an airport 30 minutes before your flight leaves and visiting the captain in the cockpit before taking your seat. What hasn’t changed, though, is the fact that people love to complain — so we’ve come up with the following list of travel gripes to take you back to the policies of yore. Read on, reminisce and be sure to leave your own additions in the comments section below.

Then: “My bags are so heavy I won’t be able to carry them all.”
Now: “My bags are so expensive I won’t be able to pay for them all.”

Forget nickel-and-diming. Fees for checked bags are becoming downright ridiculous.

7 Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

Then: “I’ll walk you to your gate.”
Now: “I’ll walk you to the ticket counter.”

Regulations have become so strict that you can’t accompany a traveling friend or loved one to the gate anymore. In fact, you can’t even make it much past the ticket counter without proof that you’re actually flying.

Then: “Will this flight really take five hours?”
Now: “Will this security line really take five hours?”

Little known tidbit: Experts* say the amount of time it takes to clear the security checkpoints at the airport is equivalent to the amount of time it takes to plan for, pack for and work enough hours to pay for a trip.

*By “experts,” we mean nobody at all.

Then: “What do you mean I can’t bring a rocket launcher onboard?”
Now: “What do you mean I can’t bring a snow globe onboard?”

As if packing weren’t already difficult enough, now we’re reduced to toting the world’s tiniest bottles of shampoo and conditioner. And does lip balm go in the quart-sized bag or not?

Airport Security: Your Questions Answered

Then: “The person next to me is smoking.”
Now: “The person next to me is taking up half of my seat.”

Sure, the ways in which fellow fliers infringe on your personal space has changed, but the basic fact that they infringe hasn’t changed at all.

Then: “I’m 6’2″, and I have hardly any room to stretch my legs.”
Now: “I’m 6’2″, and I have even less room to stretch my legs.”

As airlines try to cram more passengers on each flight, seats have become smaller and smaller while passengers seem to get larger.

How to Get the Best Airplane Seat

Then: “This food isn’t good.”
Now: “This food isn’t free.”

It used to be that passengers would complain about the quality of the food. Now they complain about having to pay for the right to complain about the quality of the food.

What would you add to this list?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

If you’re lucky, you’ve never experienced the sinking feeling you get when your luggage doesn’t show up on the carousel post-flight. But if you’re me — or one of millions of other fliers — you deal with said feeling by either praising yourself for packing a well-stocked carry-on or immediately going into panic mode.

Regardless of your luck with lost bags (or lack thereof), you’ll likely be comforted to know that, according to SITA (Societe Internationale de Telecommunications Aeronautiques) — an organization that deals with air transportation communications and works with most major airlines — the number of incidents of mishandled bags has been nearly cut in half over the last five years.

Fun with Numbers: Report Exaggerates Airline Complaints

To see the numbers in an easy-to-understand format, check out the infographic below, published by Irish Independent and designed by Boldface on Visual.ly. (Click the image to see a larger version). It shows that the number of mishandled bag incidents in 2007 was nearly 47 million; in 2012, the number was down to a little more than 26 million — a decline of nearly 45 percent. (Note: “Mishandled bags” includes luggage that fell victim to transfer mishandling, loading failure, loading errors, arrival mishandling, airport/customs/weather-related issues, ticketing errors/baggage switches or tagging errors.)

Source

But wait. Isn’t 26 million a lot? It’s a huge number overall, but the graphic also states that nearly 3 billion passengers flew in 2012. That means less than 1 percent of all passengers had a mishandled bag.

So let’s keep this in perspective. Yes, there are still far too many lost bags, but at least it seems like the airlines are doing something about it.

What to Do if an Airline Loses Your Bag

What’s your take? Have you lost a bag? Do the stats make you feel more secure — or more likely to pack an extra-large carry-on? Weigh in with your comments below.

–written by Ashley Kosciolek