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woman staring out airport windowThe dreaded airport layover has happened to us all — I’m not talking an hour to grab a snack in between flights; I’m talking mind-numbing half-days. Sure, there are shops and sometimes even massage centers and airport gardens to pass the time, but if you’re an antsy traveler like I am, you’re staring longingly out the window and wondering what new adventures await beyond the tarmac. Unfortunately, exploring a new city in a short amount of time with a lot of unknowns can be just cause for hesitation — get lost, get back late, and another long wait for a new flight might befall you.

Luckily for impatient but practical explorers like us, a number of major cities around the world actually offer tours designed to fit within the span of a layover, and get this: some of them are completely free.

Istanbul: Anyone flying through Turkey’s best-known city with a layover of six hours or more is welcome to a historical jaunt about town, free of charge with Turkish Airlines tour operator Touristanbul. Sites include the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar.

London: Self-proclaimed “original founders of the layover tour,” London Magical Tours aims to whisk you away from Heathrow or Gatwick on a customized tour of London, Windsor, Hampton Court or Oxford. A private chauffeur may be a nice way to escape to the city, but these tours aren’t free — a price quote will depend on the needs of your group.

Singapore: While Changi Airport is renowned for being one of the world’s best, that shouldn’t stop you from seeing what’s beyond it. If you have just four hours to kill between flights, you can join the Free Singapore Tour, presented by Singapore Airlines in partnership with the airport. During your two-hour guided tour you will see the world’s tallest observation wheel, the Singapore Flyer; Gardens by the Bay, an arrangement of three spectacular waterfront gardens; Chinatown; Little India; the Colonial District and more. If you have four and a half hours, consider the City Lights Tour — Singapore sightseeing by night.

Best Airports for Layovers

Reykjavik: Turn your layover in Iceland into a mini-vacation. Icelandair allows passengers to turn layovers into a stopover of up to seven days — for no extra cost. That means a few days, not just hours, to tour Reykjavik and its surrounding sights (hey, you might never be back in Iceland). Tour operator Reykjavik Excursions provides day tours with pick-up from the airport. Popular options include a guided city tour and a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Prices vary by package.

Beijing: An eight- to 14-hour layover in China’s capital city is no sweat with a Beijing Layover Tour. Starting from $60 per person, spend the day with a private tour guide and driver to visit a number of themed destinations such as “Olympic Sites” or “Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City.” The value is not as great — just a limited number of stops for the price — but unless you speak the language, a tour is your best way to see some of the things China is famous for, without having to navigate it yourself. (And it beats reading magazines all day in an airport chair.)

9 Ways to Make the Most of Your Layover

Bogota: All you need is five hours to take a layover tour of Bogota, Colombia, with Bogotravel Tours. For a fee, this local tour operator will arrange pick-up and drop-off at the airport, and provide a day trip showcasing the capital’s social, historical and political centers — and, of course, an opportunity to grab a cup of coffee. If you’ve had your share of sitting and want to stretch your legs a bit before flying out, try one of Bogotravel’s bike tours.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

This Friday’s challenge is a photo of an unidentified place somewhere in the world. Can you tell us where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Tuesday to see if you were right!

memorial Tuul River


Hint: This memorial with stunning panoramic views resides in the largest city along the Tuul River. Can you name the city and country? (Bonus for the memorial.)

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, August 18, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Paula Roberts, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was the Zaisan Memorial in Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Paula has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

puppies and kittens are relaxing to nervous fliersPills, booze, loud music, deep breathing — these are some of the desperate methods employed by the nervous flier to get through takeoff, landing and every bump in between. But one airline is encouraging a remedy that is a tad more … wholesome: puppies and kittens.

Starting this September, British Airways will air “Paws and Relax,” an in-flight channel available on long-haul flights that showcases cute and cuddly domestic animals. As reported by the Telegraph, the programs will include “Simon’s Cat” — an animated series about a man and his cat; “The Secret Life of Cats,” a popular BBC documentary about cat cams; and “America’s Cutest Dog” (think Animal Planet’s “Too Cute! Puppies”).

9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

The channel also features cameos from residents of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the U.K.’s oldest home for dogs and cats, located in London.

British Airways believes the new pet programming will “enhance the wellbeing of customers,” in addition to being just plain endearing. If viral cat videos on the Internet have taught us anything, it’s that people love watching them.

If, somehow, animals aren’t your thing (or you’ve seen every episode on repeat), then switch over to the “Slow TV” channel, which features footage from a continuous, seven-hour train ride from Oslo to Bergen. (Potentially a better sleep aid than Xanax.)

Which in-flight channel do you hope they have on your next flight?

How to Cope with Fear of Flying

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

This Friday’s challenge is a photo of an unidentified place somewhere in the world. Can you tell us where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Tuesday to see if you were right!

harbor city



Hint: This scenic harbor city is home to the most inhabitants in the country ( a country on many travel wish lists). Can you name the city?

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, July 28, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Beth Coleman, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Auckland, New Zealand. Beth has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Imagining the islands of the Southern Caribbean, my mind drifted to turquoise waters of the deepest hue, white sandy beaches, towering resorts and those long-reaching divi divi trees, bent along the trade winds at a 90-degree angle. What I didn’t expect was prehistoric birds, desert terrain and such close ties to South America. During my time in the “A” and “C” islands of the ABC islands, I learned there’s way more to island life than sunbathing and sipping cocktails. Read on for six things that surprised me.

curacao willemstad pastel buildings


Migraines determined the color of the buildings in Curacao.
I’d heard rumors of a government decree requiring the famous facades of Willemstad to be painted in their photogenic pastels, and the locals maintain that this is the case. On a tour of the island, our guide stated that an early governor suffered so badly from migraines that to avoid the reflection of sunlight off of white buildings, he ordered the pastel paint jobs. Despite the initial intention, the scenic waterfront and historic buildings of Willemstad earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition in 1997.

ostrich farm curacao


Curacao is home to the largest ostrich farm outside of Africa.
It’s not what might come to mind when you think of the mesmerizing pontoon bridge and downtown shopping of Curacao, but the island is home to the impressive Curacao Ostrich Farm — and a tour is worth your time. Knowledgeable guides will take you on a safari-style tour through the grounds, which also feature pigs, alligators and sheep that look like goats (all part of a sustainable system). At times you may get the feeling you’ve stepped into Jurassic Park Lite, but a gift shop (and a cafe that serves ostrich) remind you this is still, in part, tourist territory. To avoid an eyeroll from staff, pass on the temptation to ride an ostrich.

dushi sign curacao


The regional catchphrase means “sweet,” and is applied often.
The immature may have trouble stifling a laugh the first time they encounter the catchphrase popular across Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, but “dushi” is so popular with islanders that it’s become part of Curacao’s official tourism campaign. Meaning any combination of sweet, good and nice, dushi is a Papiamento word to describe literal sweetness, as in a local dish called pan dushi (meaning sweet bread), but also a way to describe the sweet way of island life in the Southern Caribbean. Dushi can also be used as a term of endearment.

Slideshow: Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

cactus aruba southern caribbean


Large portions of the islands feel more Southwestern than Caribbean.
Cruising the Caribbean you expect the beaches and the oceans of an undeniably spectacular blue, but go a small ways inland and it’s dirt, rocks and forests of cacti. I didn’t expect such a distinct difference in landscape; one minute resort domain and the next, you’re cast out among weather-beaten roads that could be in the middle of Arizona. Lizards crawl around rock formations overlooking cliffs that drop to the sea (a good indicator you’re still on an island and not in the Southwest), and cacti is used as a natural fence by residents. All of this manages to complement the islands’ more tropical Caribbean image.

floating market venezuela willemstad curacao


Curacao’s famous floating market is actually from Venezuela.
One of the main attractions in Willemstad is the floating market, docked each day in colorful boats and providing fresh fish and seafood. What I didn’t know prior to touring this marketplace is that all of the boats sail in daily from Venezuela, the fruit stands sell fruit from Venezuela and the craft market is run by Jamaicans — not a Curacao local in sight. Curacao is just about 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, making it a close neighbor of South America (the island was first settled by its native Arawak Amerindians). This relationship plays an important role in the culture of Curacao.

eiffel tower aruba casibari multilingual


The people are extremely multilingual.
Have you ever dreamed of speaking four languages? If you want your children to learn, move to one of the ABC islands. Islanders in Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao seem to have a flair for languages, and it’s due to their complicated roots. The native dialect, Papiamento, is already a blend of Afrikaans, Portuguese, Spanish, English and other languages, all rolled into one. Because these are Dutch islands, locals also learn to speak Dutch and English in school. To add to that, it’s not uncommon for Spanish or German to be spoken in the home. After a primary education, many locals attend universities in the Netherlands and abroad.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

complaintsSpirit Airlines’ wacky new marketing campaign encourages you to hate on them. The ironic thing is that I never had an issue with Spirit until I tested out their Hate Thousand Miles campaign.

Log onto HateThousandMiles.com and you’re greeted by an assaulting yellow screen and an intimidating blonde woman hurling expletives into a cartoon cloud. The video is something you would see on a comedy site like Funny or Die — a man strums a guitar while the blonde woman explains the campaign and encourages one and all to hate on any airline of their choice. They then go on to share some laughable tweet-length complaints about Spirit in the “spirit” of fun and humility. All you have to do is complain, and you will receive 8,000 FREE SPIRIT frequent flier miles within 10 days. You start to think, “Hey, what’s the catch?”

I don’t have much experience with Spirit, but inspired by my recent carry-on conundrum I took the bait of a potentially free flight and vented about the now-uselessness of my carry-on in 140 characters. The first catch is the required fields — the very first of which takes your email, home address and phone number for a free account with Spirit. There’s already enough information about me floating in the Internet ether, so fair enough.

Now equipped with a member number, I submitted the grievance and was greeted by a few expected pages of terms and conditions. Spirit can modify or terminate the program at any time, flight cancellations won’t be credited, I can unsubscribe thusly, yadda yadda. I accepted my fate, still holding out hope for a flight to anywhere (okay, somewhere). Spirit congratulated me for getting my beef with an airline off my chest, and ensured that within 10 days I would receive an email with my miles.

10 Ways Air Travel Has Gone Downhill

I started dreaming about all the places 8,000 miles could bring me from New Jersey. After much investigation I found a chart that explains which destinations I’d be eligible for. Standard flights are out to any region — those start at 10,000 miles. But an array of “off-peak” journeys in regions one through three (up to 24,999 physical miles) came in at 2,500, 5,000 and 7,500 FREE SPIRIT miles. Perfect!

Perfect until I realized I had no idea exactly what qualifies as “off-peak”… and still haven’t had any luck finding it (if you do, let me know). In theory, the nearby Philadelphia airport could whisk me to all but two locations on the chart during off-peak times. I headed back to the terms and conditions for any semblance of sense and I came across an unwelcome surprise: “For members redeeming Off-Peak awards, the Award Redemption Fee must be paid with a Spirit MasterCard.”

Wait, what redemption fee? I don’t even have a MasterCard.

“Members will need a credit card at time of booking and are responsible for paying any and all applicable taxes and fees (including, but not limited to: Customs, inspection, immigration, security, agriculture, facility and departure/arrival charges, any administrative fees and the September 11th U.S. Security Fee of up to $10 USD roundtrip).” Okay, I can handle $10, but how much is all that other stuff? I couldn’t pay it anyway because I don’t have the right card.

In the end, I giggled at the crude comments in the video, I submitted my complaint, I bought into the hype — but if your campaign is to be transparent about what your airline is offering customers, perhaps the same standard should also apply to your campaign.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Wear on a Plane

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

airlinesThis post is part of our “Airlines Behaving Badly” series, which chronicles the oft-wicked ways of the air travel industry.

I’m leaving on a trip this Sunday and for the first time in my life I packed early and I packed light. Save the toothbrush, I crossed the toiletry Ts and dotted all the iPad Is into my carry-on suitcase so I could spend the rest of the week anticipating my travels and not dreading packing. But wouldn’t you know it, three major airlines — American, Delta and United — have reduced the size of an acceptable carry-on yet again (it flew under the radar until recently). I am flying one of these lines, and of course when I measured my bag, roughly 24 X 15 X 9, it was too large. The new size regulation — apparently enacted by United in March but effective immediately — is 22 inches long by 14 inches wide and 9 inches high, skimming a collective 5 inches off of what was a perfectly fine carry-on bag just weeks ago, and rendering my treasured, nearly new (expensive) indigo suitcase totally useless against checked-bag fees.

Pinned to a new FAA regulation (according to this article on Airfarewatchdog.com), it’s curious that fellow airlines JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin America and Frontier have maintained their 24 X 16 X 10-inch carry-on allocations.

Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Upon further review, George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, reflects that although the changes are subtle, they are being strictly enforced by the TSA and not as clearly explained by the airlines. The standard of a 45-inch maximum outside linear dimension is made null if the dimensions exceed any of the newly specified maximums. So in other words, 21 X 14 X 10 may meet the 45-inches-total guideline, but not the new 9-inches-high guideline. Therefore, the risk of having to re-pack, being sent to the back of the check-in line and potentially missing your flight is a real one — all traced back to a difference of one inch.

Whether it’s a regulation based in research, a ploy to cash in on more checked bags or simply a way to keep travelers on their toes, it’s exhausting keeping up with all the policy updates. I was finally ahead in the travel race, only to be handed a penalty card.

Have you encountered any trouble at the check-in counter lately? Vent about misguided measurements in the comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

plane taking off clock tickingThe perfect time to arrive at the airport, according to one mathematician, may be an unsettling one. Despite most airlines advising you to arrive at least three hours prior to international departure, Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison vies that the best time to arrive for your flight is as late as possible, and considers every hour spent waiting to board a plane as a “negative unit.”

According to the article in Huffington Post, Ellenberg considers optimizing your life by cutting it close to boarding time. “If we routinely arrive at airports three hours ahead of time, we’ll accrue hundreds of those lost hours over the course of our lives, and that’s not an efficient use of our time on earth.”

Ellenberg’s strategy puts forth only a one to two percent chance of missing your flight, but he doesn’t seem too concerned about the prospect, quoted as saying, “If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re not doing it right.”

10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security

Although Ellenberg’s theory seems to be about saving precious time, it gives me an anxiety attack just to imagine running late for a flight. I think the notion of saving time is a noble one, but let’s be honest: there are plenty of times in travel that we spend waiting — security checkpoints, hotel check-ins, you name it — but it’s worth it to ensure we have the best trip possible.

I don’t see how my life would be benefitted if I missed my flight — or needed an inhaler to catch one. Do you subscribe to Ellenberg’s time-saving maneuver? Tell us about your arrival-time preferences in the comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

This Friday’s challenge is a photo of an unidentified place somewhere in the world. Can you tell us where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Tuesday to see if you were right!

houses, ice




Hint: It may not look it, but it’s springtime in this colorful country. Can you guess which?

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, June 9, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Jennifer Parry, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Greenland. Jennifer has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

woman solo airportA few years ago I came across a really great travel deal to Ireland. It included flights, accommodations, a car rental and even a castle stay, all within my budget. I had recently moved home from college and was working at the time, but many of my friends didn’t have the finances for travel that I had saved. Apart from not knowing how to drive a manual (I still give my parents grief for not teaching me how), there was something holding me back that wasn’t price, availability or my desire to go — I just didn’t feel completely safe traveling alone.

My hesitation to pack my bags didn’t come from inexperience — I have traveled my whole life and spent four months overseas when I was 20 years old, in countries such as Brazil, South Africa, China and India (albeit while I was studying abroad, and always with a group).

Recent crimes against women in the news worldwide, coupled with an unsettling piece in the New York Times last week about violence against women traveling abroad, had me reflecting on my own position.

While Europe is considered a relative safe zone by many travelers, I still couldn’t picture tasting my first authentic Guinness, alone in an Irish bar, away from anyone I knew. It wasn’t the fear of loneliness — the beer would be just as delicious with or without a companion — it was purely concern of the unknown. This is because the question many women travelers have been asking for so long should be less a question about being abroad, and more about women’s safety on a global scale.

15 Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling Solo

I think it’s so difficult for aspiring travelers (of any gender) to wander the world carefree, because the open-mindedness and welcoming attitude that serves as the cornerstone of independent travel, is in direct conflict with the disheartening reality of violent crime. In particular, women are not only targets for violence, but also sexual violence, which makes the decision to travel solo more poignant and more of a risk. This isn’t the reality in some distant, lawless land; this is the reality everywhere in the world — both at home and on foreign soil.

It then might not make sense for me to justify so much time spent wandering the streets of New York City alone, at all hours of the day or night, but context is a factor in my personal decision of whether I feel safe in a location. I am familiar with New York — I speak the language, I know the laws, I know how to get around, and in a pinch, I have familiar faces I can phone that are nearby. That’s not to say statistically, New York is any safer than Istanbul or any other city, but my comfort level and my instincts feel more refined there. I could just as easily become a victim of a hapless crime one block from where I live as I could halfway across the world, so in my eyes, it’s a matter of taking chances.

Sarai Sierra was one woman among many who travel solo. Unfortunately, Sierra did not return home from her trip to Turkey last year, when unlike many solo travelers, she was murdered after her assailant made unwanted advances towards her. Media attention steeped in fear may be to blame for putting many societal issues in a negative light — the one- in-a-hundred chance — but the fact is things can and do happen while traveling abroad (being alone and a woman doesn’t help your case) and for a time they can outshine the many fulfilling experiences people do have. (Jodi Ettenberg wrote a very balanced blog on the subject for Legal Nomads in February 2013 – - the same month Sierra was found dead.)

So are women safe abroad? I would say just about as safe as they are anywhere. Travel is a risk, and one everyone should take, but the circumstances regarding solo travel are especially personal (and as a woman, more vulnerable). I am sad to say that while the prospect of traveling alone isn’t an impossible feat, as a woman, I must admit it makes me nervous. As with anything in life, stepping outside your door is a daily gamble — it’s up to you if the benefit of having meaningful travel experiences outweighs the potential challenges.

I had the chance to travel solo to Ireland, and in the end I was too unsure about it. With everything going on in the world, my fears weren’t exactly unfounded. However, the point is women are at risk anywhere, and a lot of women travelers understand that and go anyway. If I can roam the streets of the City that Never Sleeps, then maybe one day I can pick up and do the same independently in the Emerald Isle.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel