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car keysTraveling is a pricey proposition, and flying adds even more nickel-and-dime expenses to your tab. Checked baggage fees. Extra leg room fees. In-flight movie fees. Wouldn’t it be great if you could get someone else to pay for your airport parking while you globetrot?

FlightCar, a new company based in California, may soon match up travelers looking for rental cars with travelers who have cars sitting, unused, in long-term airport parking lots.

According to the company’s Web site, the idea hasn’t yet come to fruition, but the service is slated to launch later this year in Oakland and San Jose.

10 Things to Do Before You Travel

What’s in it for renters? Cars rented through FlightCar will supposedly be up to 50 percent cheaper than cars rented through standard rental companies like Hertz, Avis or Enterprise.

What’s in it for rentees? Your car will be earning you money — instead of costing you — while you travel. Plus, FlightCar will even clean your vehicle for you, pre- and post-rental. When you register online, you can set the daily rate and the mileage limit, and each car is insured up to $1 million, according to the company’s Web site.

For more info, check out the video:

What’s your take? Would you let a stranger drive your car while you’re out of town? Share your comments below.

An Airline Fee We Might Actually Want to Pay

–written by Ashley Kosciolek

secure-cell-phone-appPlane tickets, hotel reservations, copies of your passport and credit cards: Would you trust your most sensitive travel documents to a cell phone app? We were skeptical, so we tested it for ourselves.

We first checked out Web site www.personal.com, where we created an account and added “gems” — categories under which you can upload and save everything from contacts to bank statements. (For our purposes, we tested out the travel gem, where we stored passport copies, trip itineraries and flight information.)

Essential Travel Apps

Overall, we found the site a little tricky to use — there are still some pages we can’t figure out how to get back to — but the cell phone app, available for iPhone and Android, proved a bit easier to navigate. The app allows you to easily access your important information on the go, even while abroad, without incurring crazy international fees. The best part? It’s free to download.

So, how secure is it? Personal.com’s Web site promises all information is encrypted, and your account is also protected by a username-and-password login combination. There are ways to share gems, but much like Facebook, users have to request to share information with other users before it can be seen by others, and each user has the right to deny said requests.

As part of its newest software updates, Apple has released a program called Passbook, which, through various applications, offers functions similar to those afforded by Personal.com. We haven’t had much time to test it out, but it seems these sorts of paper-saving features are becoming more common.

Overall, we’re still unsure how safe these services are — especially if a phone containing sensitive documents were lost or stolen — but they sure do make traveling a lot more convenient.

Have you used applications like this? If not, would you consider it? If so, how was your experience? We welcome your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

istanbul mosque birdsLast week I returned from a trip to Europe that involved visits to a couple of places in Italy as well as a stop in Turkey. “I’m worried about you going to Turkey,” my mom nervously told me over the phone before my plane took off. Because it’s near the Middle East, she had lumped it in with some of the less stable locations in that region and was concerned it was unsafe — even before the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya.

Sadly, I’ve spoken with several others — granted, not frequent travelers — who expressed the same sense of alarm when I mentioned where I was going, and I’ve received more than one reader e-mail asking whether it’s wise to embark on cruise ship shore excursions in certain locations, such as Greece and South Africa, that I wouldn’t necessarily consider to be at risk.

Travel Warnings and Advisories

As a Turkey newbie, I had no preconceived ideas, but I was pleasantly surprised by how modern it is and how friendly and welcoming its residents proved to be. I felt no less safe than when I’ve traveled to other European countries — Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, etc. Even our tour guide told us the country gets a bad rap, despite the absence of U.S. State Department travel warnings there.

While I take basic precautions and trust my instincts when I travel, I try to avoid allowing fear to keep me from visiting the places on my bucket list.

Have you visited someplace about which others were wrongly concerned? Have you traveled to a supposedly questionable area and found the danger to be blown out of proportion? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

postcardsWe travelers like to brag. Whether we’re at the beach for a day or backpacking through Europe for a month, there’s no better way to say “thinking of you” (or, more specifically, “thinking of you while I’m being awesome on my awesome trip”) than a postcard. But with the rise in smartphone usage and the popularity of social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, postcards are a dying medium.

According to Web site Tnooz, only 16 percent of 2,000 adults in a recent survey said that they send postcards while traveling. Many cited slow mailing times and the added headache of finding stamps and mailboxes as reasons why they opt for other forms of communication instead. It seems that phone calls, texts, Facebook posts and mass e-mails have increasingly pushed postcards in the direction of the dinosaur.

However, companies like Postcardly offer ways to combine the two by using technology to send printed postcards as easily as sending an e-mail. Although it’s a cute idea, some just don’t find it as appealing as having a Facebook album that all 500 of your friends can see and “like.”

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

Do you stay in touch with folks back home while globetrotting? Do you prefer sending and/or receiving hard copies, or are you more partial to the virtual version? Be sure to vote in our poll, and leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

bathroom signSure, clearing customs can be a nuisance when all you really want is a Cuban cigar, some flower bulbs or maybe an oversized wheel of cheese. But we’re always dumbfounded and, sometimes, amused by those who attempt to cross international borders with animals, drugs and other, more severe contraband hidden in everything from beer cans to unmentionables.

Customs and Duty-Free Guide

Read on for a list of some of the most bizarre customs kerfuffles we’ve ever come across.

Cocaine cast: According to AOL Travel one man, traveling from Chile to Spain, was busted at customs for wearing a cast made from cocaine. The kicker? His leg was actually fractured. It’s unclear whether he injured himself on purpose to make the cast ruse more plausible. In his possession, he also had several beer cans filled with the drug.

“Fresh fruit”: Another compilation, provided by Neatorama, lists the attempted smuggling of various reptiles and amphibians — including 3,492 pig-nosed turtles, which sources say would likely have been used for soup and sex-enhancing drugs. Um, ew.

A dead guy: One woman attempted to take her husband from England to Germany, where he lived. The problem? He was deceased. We don’t mean to be insensitive, but … really?! Women’s Day says the woman and her daughter put the man’s corpse in a wheelchair and claimed he was sleeping. Officials became suspicious when they couldn’t find a pulse, and an inspection of his body determined he had died about 12 hours prior.

What Not to Do at the Airport

Bra full of snakes: Ladies, if you ever have the urge to place 75 live snakes into your bra, be sure not to show your discomfort. The U.K.’s Metro reports that a woman traveling to Stockholm tipped off customs officials when she was seen scratching her chest.

Girdle full of monkeys: An Examiner.com article tells the story of a man traveling from Peru to Mexico with an, ahem, “suspicious bulge.” Said bulge turned out to consist of a number of endangered Titi monkeys.

What’s the craziest smuggling story you’ve ever heard of?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

hotel signThe 2012 Summer Olympic Games are in full swing in London, and as is often the case during major events, prices for accommodations were sold at large premiums in the months leading up to the Games. But many hotels have seen less demand than they expected, prompting some to “discount” their inflated rates at the last minute in order to fill still-empty rooms.

According to the Press Association, some booking engines reported prices inflated as much as 300 percent over the past two months, but say rates have since fallen back to levels that are closer to the norm.

Over-inflated prices aren’t uncommon when major events come to town, such as Mardi Gras New Orleans or Venice‘s Carnevale, but when demand is lower than expected, prices do sometimes fall — leaving visitors who booked early feeling ripped off. So what’s a budget traveler to do to protect against price gouging when inflation is an issue?

1. Use sites like Tingo.com, which will credit your card accordingly if the price of your booked hotel room drops. (See Want a Hotel Refund? Yes. Please. to learn more about Tingo.)

2. Look into refundable rates, check cancellation policies and consider purchasing appropriate travel insurance in case you have buyer’s remorse after booking an expensive room. Whether you find a cheaper room elsewhere or just flat-out decide to forgo the entire trip, you’ll be more likely to get your money back.

3. Ditch the hotel. If hotels are out of your price range during certain special events, consider staying at a hostel, a bed and breakfast or someone’s home (also known as couch surfing). Vacation rentals are also another option, which can be less expensive and offer more homey comforts.

Have you ever overpaid for a hotel during a major world event? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Tingo.com.

Today, during my usual lunchtime sanity break, I peeled myself from my desk and ventured outside in search of food. The wall of hot air that greeted me was stifling. To the chagrin of several women in the knitting store across the way, I immediately stripped down to my underwear. Okay, not really — but I did seriously consider it as I watched a small child attempting to fry an egg in the parking lot.

The latest heat wave here in the Northeastern U.S. has brought temperatures in the 90′s for the past several weeks, and it’s constantly got me wishing I were anywhere but here — anywhere that’s cooler than here, that is.

Take a peek below for four places and activities that I’ve been dreaming about almost daily of late. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel cooler just looking at them.

Visiting Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

glacier bay national park

Swimming at Dunn’s River Falls, Ocho Rios, Jamaica

dunns river falls jamaica

Skiing in Queenstown, New Zealand

queenstown skiing

Touring the (air-conditioned!) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

metropolitan museum of art new york

Where would you like to cool off right about now?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

apple logo store new york cityImagine a booking site that anticipates your hotel preferences based solely on the type of computer you use. If this seems a bit absurd, you may want to take it up with Orbitz, which has begun using data-monitoring technology to direct Mac users to slightly more upscale (and expensive) hotels than those highlighted for PC users.

First reported by the Wall Street Journal, this practice is possible because retail sites can track whether visitors are coming in via Windows or other operating systems. They can even tell which sorts of devices — computer, iPad, Android, etc. — visitors are using.

According to the WSJ article, Orbitz’s analytics team has determined that Mac users spend an average of about 30 percent more per night than PC users on hotels booked through the site. So, although all Orbitz visitors have access to the same hotels at identical prices, Mac users are initially directed to view more expensive options.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

My first thought was that it’s sort of like saying I’m more likely to prefer polka-dotted elephants to striped turtles because I drive a Volkswagen — the two are unrelated. On the other hand, there are statistics (including higher household income among Mac users) to back up the correlation.

All of this data tracking makes me wonder just how far the travel industry (or any industry, for that matter) will go in an effort to personalize content. I’m envisioning sites that direct iPad users to hotels that have iPod docking stations, and Windows XP (circa 2001) users being sent to deals for inexpensive chain hotels.

The Airport Security Checkpoint of the Future?

So, what do you think? Is this type of info-gathering a little too “Big Brother,” or do you think it’s just smart marketing? Share your thoughts below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

amsterdam solo travel womanI recently returned from a marvelous trip to Amsterdam, where I toured museums, ogled tulips, sipped jenever, ate pickled herring and explored the city’s canals and historical monuments — by myself.

I was informed early on that I’d be on my own for the trip, which was my first to the Netherlands. To put it mildly, I was terrified. I’d heard horror stories about pickpockets and districts of the red-light variety, and I’ll do just about anything to avoid dining by myself. But, as someone who has an abysmal sense of direction, I was most worried about finding my own way through the city without the help of a travel companion.

Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo

Some people cringe at the idea of traveling alone, but overall, I was relieved to discover that in Amsterdam nearly everyone speaks English, maps are plentiful and the train system is easy to use. (I only got lost twice!)

The most important takeaway for me, however, was that I was able to do the trip at my own pace. In addition to spreading myself out in my non-shared hotel room, I went to sleep when I wanted, I woke up when I wanted, I walked everywhere, and I saw/toured/tasted more than 20 of Amsterdam’s most popular landmarks/museums/foods and beverages in just four days. The freedom to go at such a break-neck pace is something I probably wouldn’t have had if I’d brought a friend.

Have you traveled alone? If not, would you consider it? If so, what are some of the fun experiences you’ve had solo? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

dining alone restaurantAnyone who’s traveled solo knows that it can be both rewarding and stressful. If you’re like me, you’ve probably discovered that dining sans companions can be one of the most awkward aspects of venturing out alone. (Let’s just say I was pretty discouraged when I ended up eating by myself during the first four nights of a six-night cruise last year.)

In a recent Independent Traveler poll, about 35 percent of voters said they either try not to dine alone or absolutely avoid it at all costs. Females who fall into either of those camps may want to check out Invite for a Bite, a Web site that allows women traveling alone to meet up for meals.

Founder Cressida Howard says on the company’s “about” page that she came up with the idea after listening to a radio broadcast during which several women lamented dining solo. Women who join the site can set up invitations asking for other female dining partners to join them for a bite … or a movie or whatever.

The site includes safety tips (after all, you’ll likely be meeting up with complete strangers), and according to the frequently asked questions section, it’s limited to females for safety reasons — and so as not to be confused with a dating site.

Would having dinner with someone you’ve never met be less uncomfortable than dining alone? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Want more tips on traveling by yourself? Check out our Tips for Going Solo.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek