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There’s a lot going on in February. At this point, most people are pretty excited for some Presidents’ Day downtime and the impending flowers and chocolates that Valentine’s Day will bring. But what about Groundhog Day? Even though it’s already passed, it’s still something to celebrate, particularly if you’re in an area of the United States that’s prone to large amounts of snow.

The quirky holiday and its lovable mascot have put Punxsutawney Phil’s home town on the map. Tens of thousands of visitors come to Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to watch the little groundhog make his annual appearance each February 2. Legend says that if he sees his shadow when he emerges from his hole in a tree stump, we’re in for six more weeks of winter weather. (In case you missed it, Punxsutawney Phil told us spring will come early this year.)

punxsatawney phil lonsome george

Phil isn’t the only animal to draw curious tourist crowds. A man-eating crocodile named Lolong was a prime attraction in Bunawan Township, Agusan del Sur province, in the Philippines, until February 10, when he died at the approximate age of 60. The town’s mayor and other dismayed locals are now planning an official funeral for the reptile. Lolong measured more than 20 feet in length, weighed about a ton and had been accused of eating several residents before townspeople embraced his presence as a tourist attraction.

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

Another famous animal — and tourist favorite — passed away last year. Lonesome George, a one-of-a-kind tortoise who was first spotted on the island of Pinta (part of the Galapagos Islands) in 1971, gained notoriety for being the last of his kind in existence. Although several attempts were made to mate him after his relocation to Santa Cruz Island, none was successful. George died in June 2012, driving his particular species to extinction. At the time of his death, he was estimated to be more than 100 years old.

Which famous animal is your favorite? Be sure to tell us in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

dream of vacationWith temperatures dipping as low as 10 degrees the last two days here in IndependentTraveler.com’s neck of the woods, we’re thinking about ways we can pretend we’re someplace warmer — without emptying our wallets or burning vacation time so early in the year. The result is a list of tongue-in-cheek ideas for how to bring the sun and sand to us. Read on for a five-step plan to travel without leaving home.

Step 1: “Pack” for a week’s worth of beachy fun by bringing all those summer clothes to the front of your closet. Put together the most crazy, touristy outfit you can find — Hawaiian shirts, board shorts, white athletic socks, hats, sunglasses, lanyards and even some zinc oxide for your nose.

How to Pack for a Beach Vacation

Step 2: Create a menu of tropical drinks and mix ‘em up. Then set up beach chairs in your living room, and invite several friends to lounge and sip with you. You get bonus points for playing ocean sounds on your iPod or scenes of beaches and palm trees on your television.

Step 3: Dig the kiddie pool out of the basement, fill it with sand — colorful play sand is always fun — and pick up a bucket-and-shovel set to make yourself some sandcastles.

Step 4: Crank the heat up to 85 degrees, put on your tiniest bikini or Speedo, and set up a “beach” volleyball tournament in your dining room. (Use a beach ball so as not to break anything.)

Step 5: Soak your feet in a warm foot bath to get that ocean sensation while applying self-tanner. (Keep your swimsuit on while you do it, as tan lines add to the authenticity.)

Living room party just not enough? Plan a real getaway with our slideshow of 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

From misspellings and incorrect translations to messages that elicit a big, fat “duh,” we’ve all seen signs that have made us chuckle. Inspired by the folks over at AOL Travel, here are a few of the amusing ones the editors here at IndependentTraveler.com have captured, whether far from home or right down the road.

toilet sign

During a European river cruise on Avalon Visionary, we spotted this sign in our cabin bathroom — right above the toilet. Good thing we weren’t hoping to flush any Oreos or cartons of milk.

portland oregon river

This shot, snapped in Portland, Oregon, isn’t exactly a side-splitter, until we tell you that it was taken a mere step from the river itself, making the bottom arrow just a tad obvious.

women snacks

When we landed at Chicago‘s Midway Airport, we saw this gem upon exiting the terminal. In Amsterdam, we get it … but in Illinois, not so much.

closed sometimes

Take your chances at this business in Annapolis, Maryland, which we assume is also “open: sometimes.”

car supermarket

Posted in the parking lot near the entrance to the Oosterbeek War Cemetery in Arnhem, Netherlands, you’ll find this message. We aren’t sure what it means, but you may want to lock your vehicle.


This not-so-subtle threat serves as a gentle reminder that you shouldn’t throw anything (especially cigarette butts) overboard on MSC Poesia, which carried us on a cruise through the Western Caribbean last year.

Have you spotted any wonky signs on your journeys? If so, send them our way: feedback@independenttraveler.com. For more signs submitted by our readers, click here.

The World’s Weirdest Museums

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

It’s a cold, dreary workday here at IndependentTraveler.com’s world headquarters, and we want to share something fun. If you like travel, technology and cinema, check out these short films, selected by Roman Coppola from more than 1,000 screenplay entries as part of a contest run by Intel and W Hotels. Sure, it’s shameless product placement for W’s accommodations and Intel’s new Ultrabook, but the mini-movies actually aren’t too bad.

Whether it’s cyber romance, Mexican wrestling or creepy wishes in Washington D.C., who doesn’t need a few more ways to waste time on a day like today?

Which is your favorite? Be sure to post your thoughts below.

What Not to Do at Your Hotel

–written by Ashley Kosciolek

canceled delayed airport departure boardIf you’ve ever wished for a crystal ball, you might be in luck — at least as far as air travel is concerned. Imagine the scenario: You’re flying home for Christmas, presents crammed carefully into your carry-on. After arriving at the airport, you learn that due to impending snow, your flight has been delayed by hours or, worse, canceled completely. Talk about a holiday headache. That’s where KnowDelay comes in.

The new service, which covers 36 of the United States’ busiest airports, uses a combination of weather tracking and airline flight schedules to predict when your flight might be impacted by impending bad weather.

It’s free to sign up, and when you create an account, you can have “Captain Delay” — the mastermind behind the site — track your flights and send you alerts, allowing you to know as far as three days in advance whether you should attempt to rebook before your flight is canceled.

Airport Delays: 6 Ways to Cope

KnowDelay will also provide you with a list of alternate flights that are available, should you choose to change your plans. Keep in mind that you may face change fees for rebooking or canceling your itinerary in advance (although airlines often waive these during severe weather events). For some travelers, paying a change fee may be cheaper in the end than having to shell out for a hotel during a weather delay or missing an important client meeting.

If you’re a last-minute traveler and you’re booking your flight within three days of your trip, you can use KnowDelay proactively to determine which flights are ideal and which ones to avoid.

Here’s a more in-depth look at how the service works:

Have you had a flight delay fiasco in the past? Share your story below.

Winter Travel Tips

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

cockpit airplane pilotsWould you board a plane with no pilot? Sounds like a crazy idea — but according to an article from the Economist, it’s something that could become the future of air travel.

At some point within the next few weeks, a pilotless flight is slated to be tested during a trip from England to Scotland, meaning that the pilot operating the plane will be doing so from the ground in a control room. (There will also be a pilot in the cockpit, just in case anything goes wrong.)

The article notes that the U.S. Congress has shown interest in the technology, asking aviation regulators to find a way to incorporate unmanned aircraft into America’s air traffic control system as soon as the year 2015. The technology would likely be used on smaller aircraft carrying out functions such as border patrols or police surveillance.

For commercial aircraft carrying large numbers of passengers, it’s unlikely that onboard pilots would be eliminated altogether; instead, opines the Economist, flights might have just one pilot instead of a crew of two or three. (Our two cents: If any airline might try cutting pilots, it would be ultra-discounter Ryanair, whose CEO questions the importance of seatbelts in the air.)

How Flying Coach Could Save Your Life

Most of today’s planes are technologically advanced enough to take off, fly and land at a specified destination automatically — much like drone aircraft currently used by the military.

Overall, there still seem to be a lot of unanswered questions: How safe is an unmanned plane? Could this lead to job losses among pilots? Will pilots be able to concentrate better while controlling aircraft from the ground, or will it make them less accountable for safe flying if their lives aren’t at stake like those of the passengers onboard? And how might it affect consumer airfare prices?

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Would you feel safe flying on a pilotless plane? Be sure to leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

new york city taxiI doubt there’s anyone who’d disagree that travel would be more enjoyable if it were cheaper. Regardless of how large your budget may be, it’s never fun to incur all the tiny expenses that come with jaunting to and fro.

Since Thanksgiving is the busiest travel period, we’re excited about this: A new taxi-sharing service called Shairporter has rolled out in New York City, allowing travelers to coordinate rides to and from local airports with others who are going to the same places. (The site plans to expand to other cities in the future.)

Users can either search for rides that match their needs or post rides — complete with start and stop destinations and approximate cab fares — to get matched with others who are going the same way. Then, they meet up and share expenses. Not only is it more environmentally friendly to share a cab than to take one alone, but it’s also more economical. Membership is free.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

Sound sketchy? Users sign up through Facebook in order to help keep the community safe while maintaining privacy, and they can go back to review fellow travelers after sharing rides so others will know about their experiences.

If you’re interested, now’s the time to try it out. All cab rides on Wednesday, November 21, will be paid for by Shairporter for anyone who signs up on the site in advance.

Would you share a ride? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

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