Whether we acknowledge it or not, most of us have rituals when we fly. Some people pack their carry-ons the same way each time, while others know exactly where to buy that perfect airport breakfast sandwich — and how much time they’ll need to get it before boarding.
My own rituals center around one goal: scoring an exit row aisle seat every time (preferably without paying some sort of extra fee). When I’m sitting in “my seat” — 9C or 9D, depending on the airline and type of plane — all is well in my world. Any annoyances incurred before this point fall away and I’m ready for wheels up.
My husband has an even stronger attachment to the exit aisles. At 6-foot-5, he feels that the extra legroom isn’t a comfort; it’s a necessity — and he too will do everything he can to make sure it’s his. Being an elite flier helps, but he’s not above asking the gate agent to take pity on him to avoid an extra charge (usually after one look at his tall frame, they are happy to oblige).
Exit rows aren’t the only desirable seats, of course. My sister doesn’t care if she’s in an aisle or window, as long as she’s near the front of the plane when it lands (a cross-country flight stuck in what’s generally regarded as the worst seat on the plane — the non-reclining row in front of the bathroom — scarred her for life). And some editors here at Independent Traveler insist on a window seat so they can get the first glimpse of their destination upon arriving.
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How do you find “your” seat if you aren’t a frequent flier? I’m a big fan of SeatGuru.com (owned by our parent company, TripAdvisor), which shows you exactly which seats on a particular airline or plane are considered “best.” It’s an essential resource, particularly if you’re flying long-haul on an airline that’s unfamiliar to you.
At the risk of sounding obvious, it’s also important to choose your seat when you book. Not all airlines require you to do this, so it’s important to take your time during booking and not rush the process. Don’t forget to enter your frequent flier number, even if you’re a long way from elite! Loyalty can get you noticed.
But if you’re stuck in a bad seat at booking, don’t despair. You still have several chances to change your luck. The first one comes when you check in online; be one of the first (most flights open for check-in 24 hours in advance) and you might grab a prime location that hasn’t been snatched up by an elite.
Finally, when you’re at the airport, you can ask for changes in two different spots: at the counter when you check in and at the gate. Remember to stay polite and respectful with your requests; good manners go a long way these days.
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Once you’re on the plane, you can still make your experience better, even if your seat isn’t the best. While few flight attendants have the power to upgrade you, they can make your life a little easier — and I’ve received free drinks just for being understanding and amenable.
– written by Chris Gray Faust
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns SeatGuru.com.
We all know that many of the world’s largest metropolitan areas — New York, London, Tokyo — have such comprehensive public transportation systems that you wouldn’t even think about renting your own car.
Luckily for the expense-averse, this list includes much of Europe. Not only do cities such as Berlin and Barcelona have comprehensive subway and bus systems in town, you can easily connect to nearby attractions in the countryside, making day trips more accessible.
But what about those smaller cities, the places that — at first glance — might seem to require a rental vehicle to make your vacation worthwhile? While I’m not averse to getting a car when it’s a necessity (in, say, Los Angeles), I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past few years by being able to go car-free in some locations you might not expect.
To me, South Beach always personified Miami — and to get the full feel, there’s nothing like tooling past its art deco architecture in an equally retro rental (preferably a convertible). But hip neighborhoods such as Wynwood, Brickell Village and the Design District have made staying downtown more appealing — and public transportation options such as the Metromover and Miami Trolley mean you won’t miss much. Best of all? Both are free.
Where You Can Go: Bayside Market Place, Mary Brickell Village, Bicentennial Park, Museum Park (home to the new Perez Art Museum), and American Airlines Arena are all on the Metromover route (you can reach Wynwood and the Design District easily by bus from the Adrienne Arsht Center). Trolleys can take you to Marlins Park, Coral Gables and, yes, Miami Beach.
Where You Can’t: You’ll still need a car to spot alligators in the Everglades or catch a Key West sunset.
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This busy Asian city has traffic jams so notorious that a separate class of vehicle has emerged to weave in and out of them (tuk tuks). Its elevated Skytrain has signs in English as well as air-conditioning, a must if you’re not used to the humidity. Also consider the Chao Phraya river, which winds through Bangkok; it’s often the quickest route between two places. Water taxis and traditional khlong (canal) boats are available.
Where You Can Go: Wat Arun, Grand Palace and Wat Prakeaw, Jim Thompson’s House, Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Khao San Road (if you want to mix with other tourists).
Where You Can’t: The famous World War II site, the bridge over the River Kwai, is in Kanchanaburi, about 90 minutes from Bangkok. While buses do run there, you’re better off hiring a driver or guide. Whatever you do, don’t take the train; it’s a local, meaning the conditions are basic (you’re likely to share a wooden seat with chickens), and it can take up to five hours.
San Antonio, Texas
If you’re deep in the heart of Texas, you expect cities with suburbs that sprawl for miles (we’re talking to you, Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth) — which is what makes San Antonio such a pleasant surprise. The Riverwalk, originally a WPA project, has been extended so it hooks up with the 10-mile Mission Reach trail. Rent bikes in trendy King William and make a day of it. The central hub of the Riverwalk is an attraction unto itself, with restaurants and bars aplenty (boat rides are fun too).
Where You Can Go: All five of San Antonio’s missions, including the Alamo; Pearl Brewery, San Antonio Art Museum, restaurants and bars.
Where You Can’t: The vineyards of nearby Hill Country require external transportation (preferably a private driver so you can taste at will).
St. Petersburg, Russia
The subway system in St. Petersburg is a major tourist sight for a reason. Conceived during Stalin’s tenure, the stations were considered “the people’s palaces” and given the design to match. You don’t even have to have a destination in mind to enjoy the elaborate chandeliers, marble floors and columns, and Soviet-era symbols found along the lines (fun fact: this is also the world’s deepest subway system).
Where You Can Go: Nevsky Prospekt, Church of the Spilled Blood, Hermitage, major theaters (for operas and ballet), and Peter and Paul Fortress. Peter the Great’s grand palace, Peterhof, is reachable by hydrofoil.
Where You Can’t: Catherine’s Palace, with the famous Amber Room, is in Pushkin (about 15 miles away) and is only open limited hours for people not in groups. It’s best to go with a guide.
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Known for its eco ethic, Seattle should have a better public transportation system than it does (while a light rail connects SEA-TAC airport with downtown, it regularly draws complaints for its geographical limitations). Luckily, the bus routes make up for it.
Where You Can Go: Pike Place Market and original Starbucks, Pioneer Square, Space Needle and Seattle Center (home to EMP Museum, the Pacific Science Center and Chilhuly Garden and Glass), both stadiums, Capitol Hill, Alki Beach (by water taxi), Bainbridge Island (by Washington State Ferry).
Where You Can’t: To go hiking in any of the mountain range parks that surround Seattle — Mt. Rainier, the Cascades or the Olympics — you’ll need a car.
– written by Chris Gray Faust
Looking for inspiration for your next trip (or simply an escape from all this winter cold)? If you’re in the New York metro area, don’t miss the New York Times Travel Show this weekend. Held at the Jacob K. Javits Center on Saturday and Sunday, March 1 and 2, the show features exhibition booths, giveaways, book signings and a full line-up of travel seminars.
Besides walking the exhibition floor, you can see IndependentTraveler.com contributor Chris Gray Faust give a talk on Sunday at 3 p.m. on how to “Chronicle Your Adventures Like the Professionals Do: Impress Your Friends and Family.”
If you’re interested in cruising, don’t miss Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic (our sister site), at the Ask the Expert Q and A, scheduled for 3 p.m. on Saturday. Carolyn is also speaking Sunday at 2 p.m. on “The Best Cruise at the Best Price: Everything You Need to Know.”
Other speakers include travel experts Arthur and Pauline Frommer, “10,000 Places to See Before You Die” author Patricia Schultz, CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg and Conde Nast Traveler columnist Wendy Perrin.
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The show is open to the public Saturday, March 1, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, March 2, from 11 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets cost $17 for adults, with children 18 and under admitted free. More information is at NYTTravelShow.com.
*Not in the New York area? See our list of 2014 travel shows around the U.S. and Canada.
– written by Chris Gray Faust
Travel writer Bill Bryson has made a career out of examining the follies and foibles of different countries and regions, including Australia, the Appalachian Trail, his home state of Iowa and his adopted country of Britain. Few authors have as much insight into how tourists behave as he does.
Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor at our sister site Cruise Critic, caught up with Bryson last month on a cruise aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. During their one-hour interview (read part 1 here), Bryson discussed his travel pet peeves — including the phrase “bucket list” — and how you can get the most out of a trip to even the most well-documented cities.
IT: After a fairly normal 1950s childhood in the Midwest, did you ever expect that you’d spend much of your life traveling?
Bill Bryson: Not at all. But I grew up with a really powerful urge to see the world, and the thing I remember very clearly is looking at National Geographic when I was a kid. My dad always had a subscription.
Now, the classic thing for little boys to do is look at the bare-breasted ladies in Africa or Tahiti, but what I was looking at was France and Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Everywhere in the world looked so attractive and exotic. I just wanted to go off and see the world.
IT: Are certain places still on your bucket list?
BB: I don’t like using that term “bucket list” as I get closer and closer to being in bucket territory. But no, there are a lot of places that I’ve never been where I’d like to go, and there are a lot of places that I’ve never been with my wife where I’d like to take her, and then there are a lot of places that I would like to go and possibly write about. But they aren’t all the same places.
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IT: What is your biggest pet peeve when you look at other travelers?
BB: There are so many people who are so obsessed with their job and their career that — no matter where you send them — they seem unable to enjoy the experience of travel. I think that’s a great shame, not only because travel makes you a better person but because it also makes you better at whatever business you do.
I know a man whose business took him all over the world but especially Sydney. And every time he’d go to Sydney from America, he’d stay at an airport hotel and meet his Australian colleagues at the airport hotel, and as soon as he possibly could he’d fly out again. He’d never seen Sydney Harbour! I don’t care how ambitious I was or how tied to my job I was, if you sent me to Sydney, at the minimum, I’m going to have a day to enjoy the experience.
IT: How do you think the Internet and smartphones have changed the way that we travel?
BB: People are so busy reporting their experiences that they aren’t actually having the experiences. I don’t travel with a cell phone in America because my cell phone from England doesn’t work in America. It drives my publishers crazy that they can’t phone me! I tell them, pretend it’s 1995 again and you don’t have a cell phone. They want instant access. So many people email you and expect an answer within minutes. You don’t have that entitlement to expect me to respond immediately.
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IT: What else have you noticed about how travel has changed?
BB: There is so much more of it happening now. Just a year or so ago, I went to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. It was out of season, but [the bridge] was so full of human beings you couldn’t walk across it. It was physically impossible without fighting crowds. It’s a shame that there are so many people who are trying to have the same few experiences.
IT: So how can a traveler who wants to have a unique experience do so?
A: Well, if you just go another 200 yards, you can have it all to yourself. [My wife and I] walk away from Trafalgar Square or Place d’Concorde. We usually end up going to some residential area or some park or follow the river. Then you very quickly shed all the tourists.
If you want to experience Paris or Rome or London in an authentic way, it’s still really easy to do. Go where people live, not where the tourists hang out. Walking is the way to get a full three-dimensional experience where all your senses kick in. You’ve got the smells and the sights and the wind in your face.
– interview conducted by Chris Gray Faust
Imagine how many insights travelers to the United States would glean about the American character if they visited during our Independence Day celebrations on July 4.
They’d pick up some of our essential values, such as patriotism (flying of flags), love for family and community (reunions, BBQs, hometown parades), distrust for institutional authority (setting off fireworks, both legal and illegal) and occasional stupidity (ER visits because of the aforementioned fireworks). Not to mention all of those sales (pursuit of happiness?).
Of course, we’re not the only country that celebrates an Independence Day. So when I found out that I’d be traveling in Mexico over its holiday (held on September 16 — not Cinco de Mayo as many people think), I saw it as a chance to dive a bit deeper into our southern neighbor’s national psyche.
My trip to Merida, a colonial city in Yucatan that’s popular with expats, also reminded me that visiting countries during their holidays can require a few schedule (and attitude) adjustments. Here are some tips I picked up.
Read up. Before you go, it helps to learn about the country’s history. A bit of research taught me that Mexico’s struggle for freedom from Spain was just as arduous — if not more so — as our break with Britain. For one thing, the war lasted 11 years, from 1810 to 1821, compared to our eight. And Spain had been in control of the colony since 1521, establishing dominance for nearly 300 years (talk about fighting the power).
The centerpiece of Mexican Independence Day is called the Grito de Dolores, a symbolic re-creation of the beginning of the revolution. It’s broadcast nationwide from Dolores, the small town in central Mexico where it all began. On the night of September 15, crowds gather in city public squares throughout Mexico to ring bells and watch fireworks. Having a little knowledge about the first Grito, issued as a call to arms by a Roman Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, made the event more special for me.
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Expect crowds — and closures. I arrived in Cancun on September 14, the Saturday before the holiday. The airport was even more packed than usual, with Mexicans arriving from overseas to celebrate the holiday at home or taking advantage of the three-day weekend to go on short trips outside the country.
Once I arrived in Merida, I learned that some attractions I’d planned on visiting, such as the Noche Mexicana, a folk festival usually held on Saturday evenings, would not be taking place. Some roads were also closed to through traffic, which meant taking a cab to the Plaza Grande was out of the question (luckily, it was a short walk from my hotel).
Tip generously. Not everyone has Independence Day off, of course. Because of the increased crowds, the day was business as usual — and then some — for people who work in the hospitality industry. If you know that you are keeping your driver, tour operator or server from being with their families on their national holiday, it’s a nice gesture to make your tip a little more special. After all, wouldn’t you want visitors to the States to do the same?
Take part. After checking with my concierge to make sure it was safe, I headed out to the Independence Day festivities around 10 p.m. Sunday night. The streets were packed with revelers, mostly families, and the restaurants on the Plaza Grande were full. After grabbing a mango sherbet at Sorbeteria Colon, which has been serving sweet treats since 1907, I positioned myself on a bench to people watch (the giggling teenagers with the fake moustaches — a tribute to the bushy revolutionaries — were particularly entertaining).
I didn’t have long to wait. After the Grito at 11 p.m., the crowd erupted into cheers. “Vivan los heroes que nos dieron patria!” the chant started, before naming some of the country’s founding fathers. “Viva nuestra independencia! Viva Mexico! Viva!“
At the end of the third “Viva Mexico,” fireworks shot into the sky. The national anthem started to play, and the people around me started singing. I found myself moved by their obvious love for their country, and realized that patriotism — as opposed to its more sinister cousin, nationalism — is a beautiful thing to watch, regardless of your passport.
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– written by Chris Gray Faust
It took two trips for me to find the beauty in Berlin.
On my first visit, my husband and I made it our mission to see as many 20th-century historical sights as we could in our limited time in Germany‘s capital. We took a World War II walking tour, strolled along the graffiti-laden remnants of the Wall at the East Side Gallery, checked out Checkpoint Charlie and read every solemn panel at the Topography of Terror.
By the time we got to the Jewish Museum Berlin, one of the largest and most moving collections of its kind, we were wiped out. The city’s bleak past had crushed us with its enormity, to the point where I couldn’t wait to leave.
When a conference called me back to Berlin this year, I vowed to give the city another chance. While you can’t ignore the horrors of the Nazi and Cold War eras, Berlin has so much more to offer travelers, particularly those interested in art (and those on a limited budget; Berlin is a bargain among European capitals). Plus I had read that the city’s culinary reputation was on an upswing.
To save money, friends and I rented a two-bedroom apartment through Airbnb on the Ku’damm, the main boulevard of the former Western portion of the city. We knew the neighborhood of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf was upscale, but we didn’t realize how much until our taxi deposited us at a building opposite Gucci.
Although not as trendy as Berlin’s Kreuzberg or Prenzlauer Berg neighborhoods, Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf still offered plenty to do and see within walking distance. The city’s public transportation system is reliable and covers most of the city (the Berlin WelcomeCard makes getting around even easier), and most Berliners speak enough English for non-German-speakers to get by.
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On this visit, I made it to Museum Island, the center of Berlin’s State Museums complex that’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of the five buildings in the middle of the Spree, I chose the Pergamon Museum, primarily so I could see the famous Pergamon Altar, an acropolis that dates back to the first half of the second century. While it was indeed impressive, I was more blown away by the Ishtar Gate, part of the ancient city of Babylon that’s been reassembled. As with any ancient treasure, it’s debatable whether it belongs in Berlin — the British Museum in London faces similar ethical issues — but for now, it’s the pinnacle of German archaeology.
After viewing ancient masterpieces, I went more modern with my next museum. Helmut Newton is one of Germany’s more famous — and notorious — photographers, and I remember his sexy photos of celebs like Madonna from the 1980′s. Many of his more ambitious works are permanently housed at the Helmut Newton Foundation, which also hosts regular exhibitions. (If you go, leave your Victorian sensibilities at the door; his photos can be explicit in nature.)
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On my first Berlin visit, I tried — and disliked — currywurst, the city’s most popular street food (while others love the combination of curry and ketchup, it didn’t sit right with me). Berlin’s culinary reputation has grown in the subsequent years, however, and the city now has 13 restaurants with Michelin stars. While I didn’t have the budget or the wherewithal to make reservations at a place like Fischers Fritz, I did experience a better class of cuisine with a stop at KaDeWe, a department store food hall that rivals Harrod’s in London. We found plenty of delicacies — think cheeses, pates and Rieslings — to fill our apartment refrigerator.
Eager to prove that Berlin boasts international cuisine, a local friend took me to 3 Minutes Sur Mer, a French restaurant in the newly trendy Torstrasse district. On the menu were escargot, fish and other brasserie-style dishes that defied the German stereotype of heavy food. Between that and the emphasis that I saw on local and organic produce, Berlin seems to be shedding its stodgy reputation — good news for foodies.
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I left Berlin with a lighter spirit and a better appreciation for the city’s comeback. A thriving tech scene means that the more young people from across the E.U. are setting up shop here — and I’m eager to go back and see how a vibrant 21st century uplifts a place that’s had more than its share of tragedy.
– written by Chris Gray Faust