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couple trip planning map laptopOn a recent work trip to Amsterdam, my first visit to this iconic city, I decided to treat myself to a little vacation time. My goal was to explore as much as I could within the four free days I had allotted myself, but, as is the case in most big cities, there were so many things I wanted to see and do: the Anne Frank House, the Keukenhof’s flowers, the Poezenboot, a canal boat tour, museums galore and, of course, the infamous Red Light District.

I figured my best bet would be to organize attractions of interest geographically to avoid wasting time racing back and forth across the city. The problem, though, was that I had no idea how to get started.
A quick Google search yielded a glorious link to Yahoo! Travel’s Trip Planner, which is still one of the most helpful travel tools I’ve ever used. Sure, it’s a fairly simple program, but that’s the beauty of it.

Sign up for an account (or use an existing one), create a name for your trip and search for things to do in your destination, either by checking them off of a prepopulated list of the most popular or by searching for things you already know you can’t miss. After adding them to your trip file, you can then click to see them arranged on a map of your destination, making it easy to group attractions by neighborhood. You can also share your trip with your travel companions … or with anyone who’s not going and wants to live vicariously through your itinerary.

Plus, as is always important when you’re trying to save precious time, you can click through to each attraction’s website to find hours of operation and purchase tickets in advance.

How to Create the Perfect Itinerary

If you’re already privy to the wonders of Trip Planner, you’re ahead of the curve. If you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for? Even if you don’t have your next vacation planned just yet, you can still create mockups for trips to every place on your bucket list so you’re ready when it comes time to book.

Which itinerary planning tools have you found most useful?

5 Trip Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

upside down house polandYes, we’re seasoned world travelers, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t occasionally enamored with kitschy roadside attractions. Be they weird landmarks, supernatural places, wonky museums or crazy theme parks, there are lots of curiosities that appeal to our roving sense of wonder.

Take, for instance, this sampling of some of the oddest homes we’ve found, both in the United States and abroad. Perhaps you’ll feel like making a pit stop on your next journey.

Beer Can House: Houston, TX
Former owner John Milkovisch began inlaying rocks, marbles and aluminum on his front and back yards in 1968 after claiming he was tired of taking care of the lawn. Aluminum roofing and siding followed over an 18-year period. The strangest part? The aluminum is all made of beer cans — including the beer-can-lid garland that hangs from the roof. It gets a bit noisy when the wind blows, but the material evidently cuts down on energy costs. After Milkovisch’s death in 1988, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art took it on as a restoration project, and it’s open to visitors on weekend afternoons.

Nautilus House: Mexico City, Mexico
A couple in Mexico City hired an architect to aid them in building themselves a home — a home that just happens to look like a giant seashell. Complete with a giant stained-glass window and several other porthole-like openings, the home is bit reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, boasting tiny vegetation-lined paths that wend between rooms, all of which are furnished with cartoonish furniture that’s fit for a hobbit.

12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of

Whimzeyland: Safety Harbor, FL
This home, purchased in 1985 as a plain-looking dwelling by current occupants (and artists) Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda, is cheerfully decorated with bright colors and knickknacks galore. Among bottle trees and other whimsical found objects are the dozens of bowling balls that can be seen throughout the grounds’ landscaping. Years ago, the pair obtained bowling balls for free at a local flea market and used them to liven up the place, painting more dismally colored ones for an even more happy effect.

Upside-Down House: Szymbark, Poland
At this dizzying property, visitors can walk around inside the structure’s upside-down rooms, which allegedly mess with the equilibria of many. Designed by Daniel Czapiewski to represent the fall of communism, it was reportedly cumbersome for builders to complete, due to the topsy-turvy nature of, well, just about everything. Bonus: If you turn your camera upside down before snapping a selfie, it’ll look like you’re hanging from the ceiling.

Winchester Mystery House: San Jose, CA
Built by Sarah Winchester, the wife of William Wirt Winchester (as in Winchester rifles), the mansion cost $5.5 million to build and contains 160 rooms. Construction went on for years as Sarah claimed she needed to accommodate the spirits of those who died at the hands of the guns her husband helped to produce. It’s now a major tourist attraction that features a museum, a restaurant and expensive tours. Hours vary seasonally.

Photos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

Which of these crazy houses would you most want to visit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

stuffed animal suitcase travelToy travel — paying to send a stuffed animal or doll on a trip in lieu of going on one yourself — isn’t new. In fact, we’ve written about it before. We’ve never been fond of the idea of putting our hard-earned cash toward a trip for an inanimate object rather than ourselves. But then we stumbled across a company doing it for more heart-warming reasons than simply making (or wasting) money.

According to ABC News, Unagi Travel, a Japanese travel agency specializing in tours for stuffed toys, sends fake furry friends to places their owners can’t go due to illness or disability. After paying a fee and mailing their toys to Tokyo, where Unagi is based, clients can track their toys’ travels via the company’s Facebook page. At the conclusion of the trip, the animals are mailed back to their owners at no additional charge, along with souvenir photos. According to Unagi’s website, the entire process takes two to three weeks, depending on the adventure chosen.

Our Favorite Tokyo Hotels

Despite its admirable purpose, Unagi’s services are still a bit quirky, not to mention limited. There are currently four tours available to Kyoto, Tokyo, a traditional onsen (hot spring) and a “mystery” location. Rates range from $35 to $95, not including each stuffed animal’s outbound travel, which could be pricey for clients not living in Japan.

Some might still consider it a waste of money, but for those who can’t get out to explore new places, we wager it’s money well spent. In some of the more fortunate cases, owners of the plush participants have been able to retrace their stuffed animals’ steps when their health improved.

What do you think? Do you have a favorite stuffed animal? Would you send it on a trip without you if you were unable to go? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

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