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using tax refund on travelWhether Uncle Sam reciprocated with a hefty refund this year, or you’re still scrambling to postmark the paperwork, tax season produces stress and savings funds alike. While most sites will advise what to spend your hard-earned refund on, we have a few travel-related fees you shouldn’t use your bonus bit of cash toward. A room with a balcony instead of just a window? Yes. Your airline’s $25 checked bag fee? Not so much. Budgeting for a dream vacation can be worth all of the withholdings, just don’t bother wasting your precious refund on the following travel fees.

Foreign Taxes
If you plan on shopping abroad, don’t let laziness rob you of repayment. Many countries — mainly in the European Union — offer their own refunds of the Value Added Tax (VAT) that is levied on clothing, art and other souvenirs. This tax can range from 10 to 25 percent, so if you’re making purchases beyond a few postcards, it’s likely worth the additional effort to provide your passport, obtain the appropriate receipt while at the store and file it once at the airport. A few things to know before you go: Try not to use the items before claiming them — this may nullify the refund — and also be aware of the spending minimums in each country to qualify for compensation. Ireland requires no minimum purchase, so load up on as much — or as little — memorabilia from the Emerald Isle as you like and submit it for recompense.

Baggage
This may seem like an obvious and overwrought fee to avoid, but don’t let the airlines break you down. Unless you’re headed on a safari and need pounds worth of gear, baggage fees can still be avoided because, well, they suck. Consider packing a lighter carry-on for the way over and bringing two bags home; for a domestic flight, ship your suitcase or additional items in advance (this may sound pricey, but consider your airline’s fees for overweight or additional baggage); or best of all, find an airline that still allows a free checked bag or two. Baggage fees are ever-changing and often vary by destination, so even if you fly with the same carrier routinely, it’s always smart to check current size restrictions and costs before you go.

Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

Prepaid Gasoline
Prepaying might seem like the mark of an organized, well-adjusted traveler — prepaid gratuities, prepaid hotel fare at a discount — but know when you’re saving time and when you’re losing money. Prepaying for gas when picking up a rental car is an expense that is only worth the cost if you’re short on time the morning of drop-off, or you’re confident that you’ll pull up to the rental agency in perfect unison with the gaslight. In this case, paying as you go and refueling on your own ensure that you’re only paying for what you’ve used — and no more.

10 Things Not to Do When Renting a Car

Single Supplement
Traveling independently is a fearless form of travel, so shouldn’t you be rewarded, not penalized, for doing so? Some tour operators and cruise lines don’t see it that way. Based on double occupancy prices, single travelers are often required to pay a premium for occupying a space set aside for two. This doesn’t have to be the case. Increasingly, cruise lines and travel companies are waiving these solo supplements and even going so far as to customize vacations and purpose-build cruise cabins for the solo traveler. Another cost-effective way to travel on your own and even get to know a travel companion is to share a room with another independent traveler — but this option depends on comfort level and availability.

Single Travel Tips for Going Solo

Internet
Internet is reaching the dawn of a new Information Age — one where access is more of a right and less of a privilege. Because of its widespread availability in most of the developed world, Internet access is easier than ever to find for free. Find a hotel, a local cafe, a college campus or even a library where you can plug in or channel some free Wi-Fi. Along with obvious benefits such as checking museum opening hours or finding a great local restaurant, you can also use VoIP apps such as FaceTime to keep in touch with loved ones at home (depending on bandwidth, of course). Internet is still hard to come by in many parts of the world and vital enough to pay for if necessary, so know before you go.

11 Things Not to Do When Booking a Hotel

– 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!

world destination


Hint: Where in the world is this field that gets its distinctive yellow hue from canola flowers?

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, April 13, 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 prize. 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 Todd Burr, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Luoping, China. Todd has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Although the date isn’t known for certain, the celebration known as Hana Matsuri, or Buddha’s birthday, is widely celebrated on April 8 by Buddhists observing the Gregorian calendar. Much like cathedrals are a major attraction across Europe — regardless of your religion — statues of Buddha are typically a must-see; they can be staggering in size, ornately embellished and set amongst expansive yet peaceful gardens, valleys and monasteries.

These five Buddhas will transport you through Asia to our own backyard, and will amaze you with their stature and history.

leshan grand buddha china festival


Leshan Grand Buddha: Sichuan Leshan, China
The tallest stone Buddha in the world, the 233-foot-tall Leshan Grand (or Giant) Buddha in Sichuan, China, was carved out of a cliff face during the Tang Dynasty between the years 713 and 803. Sources say the idea came from a Chinese monk named Haitong who hoped that the Buddha would calm the rough waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers.

Great Buddha of Thailand


Great Buddha of Thailand: Ang Thong, Thailand
If you’re looking for Buddhas, you will find many of them in Thailand. One you just can’t miss also happens to be the tallest statue in the country, and shimmers with gold paint. Located in the Wat Muang temple in Ang Thong province, the Great Buddha took 18 years to build — from 1990 to 2008 — and sits 300 feet tall. (Beware of nearby “Hell Park,” depicting what happens to sinners in, well, you know.)

Reclining Buddha Chauk htat gyi pagoda temple in Yangon, Myanmar


Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda Reclining Buddha: Yangon, Myanmar
Several hundred monks study near the pagoda that houses this reclining-style Buddha in Yangon. The statue, built in 1966 to replace the damaged original from 1907, is framed by an iron structure to protect it. Feeling cosmic? Fortune tellers and palm readers are usually available on site to tell you about your future.

buddha park near Vientiane Laos, Xieng Khuan


Buddha Park: Vientiane, Laos
Buddha Park, also known as Xieng Khuan, is a sculpture park on the Mekong River in Ventiane. Rather than one large Buddha, the park contains more than 200 statues of Hindu and Buddhist figures. The darkened skulls and worn sculptures look ancient, but were built in 1958 by Bunleua Sulilat, a spiritual leader who emigrated from Thailand during the communist occupation.

chuang yen monastery new york buddha


Chuang Yen Monastery Buddha: Carmel, New York
If you’re looking for a Buddha in the Western Hemisphere, the largest one (indoors) resides at a monastery in Carmel, New York. At 37 feet tall, the Buddha rests on a symbolic lotus, which then sits on an eight-foot platform. The platform is intricately decorated and colorful, unlike the white statue. The highlight? It’s surrounded by 10,000 skillfully carved smaller Buddhas.

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

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Oftentimes, April Fools’ jokes playfully publicized by travel companies on social media are so obvious that they might warrant an eye roll, but not a warning label. Southwest Airlines adding baggage fees — now that hits home.

The discount airline notorious for its free checked bags, surrendered in jest today, saying, “All the other guys are doing it.” Additional charges apply if your bag is a busy color, if you’re a teenager and if you’re over six feet tall, to name a few. All three? Forget it! Check out the carrier’s YouTube video below and rejoice that at least for now, this airline’s baggage fee announcement is a total joke.


Do you find the fake fees funny? What’s the best April Fools’ prank you came across this year?

Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees
The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

woman with a mapHistorically, few women fought in wars, owned significant portions of land, made laws or were recognized for their achievements “back in the day” — and none to date has been U.S. president. Traveling through historic sites you might see a sign or plaque that explains the importance of the location, its former occupants or the battle that was fought there. But have you ever come across a roadside attraction or a plaque highlighting the specific accomplishments of a woman? Less likely.

The SPARK (Sexualization Protest: Action, Resistance, Knowledge) Movement feels that this is a glaring omission, and has teamed with Google to create a smartphone app to put “Women on the Map.” In an article in the Huffington Post, SPARK urged the partnership after noticing that Google Doodles skewed heavily male (and white) in their selection of highlighted figures — only 17 percent were women between 2010 and 2013.

The Women on the Map app alerts users to places nearby where women made history, aggregated by teams at Google and SPARK. The app currently highlights 119 women from 28 countries, more than 60 percent of which are women of color.

Travel Tips for Women

“Al-Kahina (or sometimes called Queen Dihya) was an African Jewish soothsayer military warrior who led an army in North Africa in the 7th century. She fought off the Arab Muslim invaders and was considered the most powerful monarch in North Africa as you will see from the glorious statue of her in Algeria where her story is ‘mapped,'” reads an example of a notable woman included on the app from the SPARK website.

If you need an excuse to get out and recognize some female accomplishments, March is Women’s History Month.

To use the app, iPhone users need to download the Field Trip app; you’ll find the Spark: Women on the Map installment in the “Historic Places & Events” tab.

– 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!

world destination


Hint: This abbey is considered one of the best locations to view the lavender fields where?

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, March 23, 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 prize. 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 Cindy McCabe, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was the Senanque Abbey in Gordes, France. Cindy has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

expedia intern campaignIt seems that every industry these days, including travel, is scrambling to target Generation Y: the 20- and 30-somethings also referred to as millennials. Travel-booking giant Expedia is taking its own approach by appealing to curious, young would-be bookers with a new series of online-only videos featuring Jay (a nerdy character Elijah Wood might play but with a much more nasal voice who serves as the question moderator) and Stuart (color commentary provided by a Seth Rogen look-alike).

As a real-life millennial, I was forwarded the verge-of-trying-too-hard campaign (found in an article by GeekWire) by a coworker who was pretty sure my delicate millennial sensibilities would be offended by the heavy-handed duo with their own hashtag — #ExpediaInterns. In actuality, I thought it was smart — employ two slightly off-base stereotypes to elicit travel questions and concerns from a target demographic. Things like: “When is the best time to book a flight?” are answered in a live-to-serve way by intern Jay, while Stuart interrupts with nonsensical babble to lighten the matter-of-fact tone.

What my Gen X colleague found condescending, I found convenient — just tweet any queries to #ExpediaInterns and the carefully selected marketing team behind Jay and Stuart promise an answer and maybe even a video highlighting your inquisitive tweet. While she found that the tone suggested our questions weren’t being taken seriously, I felt the shtick was perfectly acceptable as long as the answers were accurate.


Perhaps I have been desensitized to Internet buffoonery through constant exposure day in and day out, but if I had the choice of a tutorial explaining algebra with a voiceover or a tutorial with a cat in a robe explaining algebra — well, you do the math. Regardless of whether your gimmick gets me to click, if you’re delivering quality advice and information, I’m all for the frivolous format.

Jay and Stuart are five videos strong so far, discussing topics like the best time to book, international travel, mixing and matching airlines and choosing a smaller airport (topics are air travel-heavy at the moment). To follow along, use #ExpediaInterns on Twitter or visit their website.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

hiking in patagonia, wanderlustSome people consider their desire to travel as an undeniable need. Despite the fanciful title of “wanderlust” that most people give it, this passion for constantly exploring new places could be deeper than a preference; it could be in your blood.

According to an article in Elite Daily, researchers believe they have isolated a gene in human DNA that predisposes some to that get-up-and-go urge. Called DRD4-7R (7r denotes the mutated form of the gene), the “wanderlust gene” is relatively rare — found in only 20 percent of the population — but explains increased levels of curiosity and restlessness, according to one study.

Another study by David Dobbs of National Geographic explored this research further, concluding that the 7r mutation of DRD4 results in people who are “more likely to take risks; explore new places, ideas, foods, relationships, drugs, or sexual opportunities,” and “generally embrace movement, change, and adventure.” These traits are linked to human migration patterns. Dobb found that when compared with populations who have mostly stayed in the same region, those with a history of relocation are more likely to carry the 7r gene.

16 Signs You’re Addicted to Travel

Other scientists doubt that something as complex as human travel can be whittled down to a single gene mutation, but — for better or worse — a number of “exploratory character traits” have been found in association with 7r.

If you occasionally like to see a new place, take a yearly vacation and have a general interest in travel, you’re probably a completely normal person. But if you have an unquenchable, insatiable necessity for traveling, and often do so without a set plan, then you might just be the product of millions of years of human development. Are you a 7r carrier?

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

collage from flytographer.comForget strangers and selfies — hire a flytographer on your next trip and never worry about capturing yourself on location again. What’s a flytographer? More like who. Leading the newest travel trend, Flytographer.com connects you with professional photographers who are available to shoot your vacation as you would a wedding (or even a celebrity sighting). Just when you thought drones were the ultimate travel paparazzo…

Local photographers in more than 130 cities make it easy to connect with someone who is familiar with the best backdrops and locations, turning an average trip into something worth a glamorous (albeit candid) photo shoot. Whether it’s a special event, such as a proposal in Prague, or simply a family vacation in Cancun that you want to be sure to capture, it beats a clunky self-timer, an awkward exchange with a passerby or an uncomfortably tight selfie.

19 Tips for Better Travel Photos

Travel blogger Johnny Jet even tried it out on a recent vacation with his wife in Hawaii.

The idea came from Nicole Smith, a Canadian woman who, after losing hundreds of travel photos due to underexposed old film, realized on a recent girls’ trip that asking a third friend to document the vacation wasn’t only a huge favor, it was a business model. A working mother of two, Smith now runs Flytographer.com full time, tapering off her hours at Microsoft, where she currently still works.

Prices for the experience range from $250, which buys you a 30-minute shoot in one location resulting in 15 photos, to $500 for a 90-minute session in two locations yielding 45 photos. A proposal photo shoot is a flat fee of $450.

What do you think — is a professional vacation photographer worth the splurge? Share in the comments.

– 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!

world destination


Hint: The Biodiversity Museum in this country was designed by Frank Gehry, and commissioned to celebrate the region’s natural and geological wonders.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, March 2, 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 prize. 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 Carole Arbush, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Panama. Carole has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

– written by Brittany Chrusciel