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tsa peanut butter“It’s not every day that a passenger tries to walk through a checkpoint with over a dozen knives in their carry-on,” reads the TSA’s latest “Good Catch” post.

Hidden within the TSA Web site like marijuana in a jar of Skippy is “Good Catch,” a series of press releases brimming with obvious statements (“currency cannot bring down an airplane”) and tales of security screenings gone awry.

In March, illegal items “artfully concealed in peanut butter” proved no match for checked baggage screeners at Los Angeles International Airport. The peanut butter is an approved item. The marijuana, which was stashed in three prescription pill bottles, is not. (Unless you’re talking about a modern art exhibit or an inside-out Reese’s cup, “artfully” and “concealed in peanut butter” probably don’t belong in the same sentence.) According to the post, a TSA officer noticed something suspicious in the jar and alerted management.

Kudos to the TSA. You can’t pull the old “drugs in peanut butter” trick on a TSA forensic bag-ologist equipped with a spoon, a dull knife, a red plastic cup and paper towels.

The TSA appears to use “Good Catch” as an opportunity to defend screening protocols that fliers find invasive (controversial imaging technology) or irksome (remove your shoes, place large electronic devices in the bin). Knife concealed in a shoe? We found that. Knife, again, “artfully concealed” in a DVD player? That too.

And any good TSA press agent knows: When security finds $55,000 in cash strategically concealed in a woman’s undergarments, as a TSA officer did in San Juan, there’s an opportunity to tout the benefit of the millimeter-wave imaging. The TSA explains: “While currency cannot bring down an airplane, the fact that our officers are able to use technology to spot artfully concealed cash shows our ability to pick-up on other non-metallic items like the explosives we saw in the Christmas day plot in 2009.”

Learn about the TSA’s latest rules in Airport Security Q&A.

– written by Dan Askin

“‘Tradition’ is a synonym for ‘rut,’” tweeted @wandering_j in response to a call out for unique summer travel traditions. We beg to differ — especially if your tradition is to visit a different island park each summer, or to charter a boat and explore places unknown. Not that there’s anything wrong with the yearly beach pilgrimage to Wildwood for family fun, arcades and deep-fried Oreos, but we’re going unique here. Check out our five, then share your own inspired ideas for summer travel traditions.

1. Trace the Beer and Food Festivals
For the connoisseur or boozehound, Beerfestivals.org’s July calendar lists dozens of fests throughout the U.S. and beyond. I think this year, I’ll start on July 23 at the Philly Zoo’s Summer Ale Festival. Attendees can drink River Horse’s Hop Hazard (or brews from a list of other outfits) and eat local cuisine while supporting the zoo’s mission to “bring about the x-tink-shun of extinction.” Or brave the summer heat for New Orleans’s Tales of the Cocktail festival, which offers cooking demos and cocktail tastings at the end of July. Finally, we had to mention @TravelSpinner’s suggestion: Head to Suffolk, England for “Dwile Flonking,” which Wikipedia says “involves two teams, each taking a turn to dance around the other while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team.” Now how could you miss that?

beer festival



2. Escape to an Island State Park
Florida‘s Bahia Honda Key comprises a state park with a natural beach (you’ll quickly get used to the strong seaweed smell), fishing and snorkeling, kayaking, rare plant spotting, and hiking. Head up to the old Bahia Honda Bridge, part of the iconic Overseas Highway, for a view of the island and its surroundings. You can rent cabins or rough it at a campsite (a store and shower facilities are available on the island). Across the country, trekkers can camp at California‘s Channel Islands, a chain of uninhabited islands with a unique ecosystem. The islands are said to resemble California as it was B.S. (before smog). Activities for campers (back country and official campsites) include surfing, hiking, and seal and sea lion viewing.

bahia honda state park florida keys



3. Explore a Destination by Chartered Boat
Visiting a place by boat is often the best — and sometimes only — way to go. If you can pull together 3 – 20 like-minded friends (the more you gather, the more you can divide the costs), you can charter a boat for a cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage, which is made up of islands unlinked by road. There are various choices, from two- or three-nighters to a week or more; all come with cook and captain. Meals and snacks are included in the costs, and often feature “catch of the day”-type fare, as well as crab and shrimp bakes. Excursions may include beach and rain forest hiking, fishing, kayaking (most charters are equipped with kayaks and smaller skiffs), wetsuit diving, whale watching, and visits to hot springs and waterfalls — all there to be enjoyed whenever the opportunity presents itself. For more tips, see Planning a Trip to Alaska.

alaska inside passage boat sunset



4. Relive History
Some of the most important (and bloodiest) battles of Civil War occurred during the summer months. @PolPrairieMama mentioned that she heads to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and Antietam (in Sharpsburg, Maryland), where 23,000 soldiers were killed in 12 hours, for summer reenactments. The big annual Gettysburg Civil War Battle Reenactment runs from July 1 to 3 and features live mortar fire demos and battles — but there are enough battlefields and reenactments to fill a lifetime of summers. And don’t forget: This year is the start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

gettysburg battlefield cannon civil war



5. Become a Home Team Groupie
Leap-frogging on an annual manly bonding trip taken by IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter’s father and brother, we’re hitting the road with an arbitrarily chosen sports squadron. A quick glance at the Philadelphia Phillies’ schedule reveals a West Coast swing from August 1 – 10, during which the team plays the Colorado Rockies for three, the San Francisco Giants for four and the Los Angeles Dodgers for three. Three vastly different cities, climates, ballparks, landscapes. Next year we’ll pick a different team on a different swing. Anything but a rut.

san francisco giants baseball ballpark



Get more summer vacation ideas!

– written by Dan Askin

Does a woman with stage IV breast cancer hoping to die in her Korean homeland belong on the no-fly list? Earlier this week, Seattle-based Northwest Cable News reported that Korean Air had barred Crystal Kim from flying out of Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport over the weekend — even though Kim presented clearance from doctors and was traveling with her daughter. Ms. Kim has rebooked with Delta and is hoping to make the flight today.

Editor’s Note, May 13, 2011, 11:35 a.m.: MSNBC reports that the Kims did indeed fly yesterday, and that Delta upgraded them to first class.

Korean Air technically has the right, as do all air carriers, to deny passengers if they’re determined to be too sick to fly. The airline said it feared Crystal could die onboard and traumatize other passengers.

Here’s the video report from Northwest Cable News:



While Ms. Kim’s sad story may have something of a positive outcome, you may or may not be surprised at who — and what — else has issues getting airborne:

- Bulldogs: Delta announced in February that it would no longer carry American, English and French bulldogs. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, it seems that a disproportionate number of these flat-snouted, respiratory-issue-prone canines were dying in flight.

- Pregnant Women: Not all policies are the same, but most airlines restrict women in late-stage pregnancy from flying without a note from a doctor, a special examination from an obstetrician, clearance from an airline’s special assistance team or all of the above. There’s often a distinction between flying on domestic and international flights, so check individual policies.

- The Contagious or Comatose: While Ms. Kim’s disease was obviously not contagious, there are other ill passengers airlines can bar from flying. Those carrying a contagious disease or other infections — flashing back to 2009, H1N1, for instance — should always check carrier rules before boarding. Not surprisingly, an airline can also bar a passenger from boarding if he or she is comatose; passengers must be able to follow emergency procedures.



– written by Dan Askin

After eight years, I was back. I had last called on London in 2003 for 100 days during a college semester. Terrorist attacks, a winning Olympic bid and new recycling laws had left their indelible mark on city and psyche during the intervening years, and yet my surface experience as a tourist seemed largely untouched — except that now I had sterling to spend on a proper pub pint instead of a 99p can of Speckled Hen from the local Sainsbury.

Speakers’ Corner, a Sunday institution that celebrates “free speech,” belongs in the British Museum. The setting, the crowds, the English nationalist talking about the dilution of her breed, have all been cast in marble. I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I turned away from the eugenics nonsense to see the same American preacher in a cowboy hat and U.S.A. flag shirt climb his ladder and begin, with a sly smile, to warn listeners of the dangers of “evilution.” Eight years had passed, but the anti-evilutionist and xenophobe’s spouts were still preserved in amber. As was the crowd’s response: unabashed mockery or visceral rancor for the racist; good-natured ribbing for the always-smiling preacher man.

speakers corner london


Some recollections seemed preordained. My lady and I had lunch at Cafe Below, located in the 11th-century crypt of St. Mary-le-Bow Church, a Christopher Wren-designed building that was mostly destroyed during the Blitz — except for the crypt. As we walked down the stairs, I remembered a passing comment from our 6’3″ bearded professor, who took our class there for a lecture. “Oh, they have a wonderful cafe in the crypt,” I could hear him muttering in his slightly grizzled voice. Dining on local farm-sourced lamb burger and a pint of pear cider, I had to agree.

I headed back to Portobello Road for the mobbed Saturday market of antiques, sundresses, bric-a-brac, and food vendors hawking German fast food, crepes and Turkish stew in steaming mega-woks. I had lunch again at the Grain Shop, a vegetarian spot where you can fill a tin with multicolored salads, stews and stir-fries for about four quid. Just as in ’03, I followed my somewhat healthy vegetarian lunch with a second course of spicy Bavarian sausage with sauerkraut and mustard.

portobello road london


Also on the dining front were the ever-present takeaway paninis, a cheap lunch eaten hot-pressed or cold. But I couldn’t find my favorite sandwich spot from 2003, a purveyor of an addictive salad with roast ham, mature cheddar, hard-boiled egg, pickles and mayo. I’d been waiting eight years for that sandwich. The loss was hard to bear.

Even thoughtless moments triggered memory flashes. At my first busy crosswalk, I recalled how cab drivers seemed to speed up if they sensed the slightest intention to cross.

On Tube platforms, the once ubiquitous Cadbury machines had vanished. The emergency phones, should you need to report a sugar crash, remained. I may have splurged on an 80p chocolate three times in three months in 2003, but I could taste the absence of fruit and nut during pre-train idling.

I remembered hurrying down Tottenham Court Road, a central artery clogged with electronics and home furnishing stores, and chain cafes like Nero, Pret a Manger and Starbucks. Not much had changed, including my closely guarded opinion of it as the worst street in Central London.

Finally, at night, I remembered how the streets buzzed after football matches. On the evening after Brazil beat Scotland 2-0, the kilted army marched from pub to pub belting out victory songs. Perhaps they stopped watching before the players had left the pitch. I suppose only giving up two goals to Brazil is a victory.

big ben london


Have you ever revisited a place after a long absence? What changed and what stayed the same? Tell us below.

– written by Dan Askin

farmerIf the recessionary mindset has taught us anything, it’s that delivering suspicious packages is not the only way to travel cheaply. Enter the working vacation, where callous-palmed travelers don the sun hat and gloves of the temporary laborer, and pay for their camp grub, modest accommodations and instructional lessons on trail maintenance by picking heirloom tomatoes or keeping leaf-eating beetles at bay. Below are two ingenious ways to take a vacation for next to nothing.

(Editor’s Note: If you already have a full-time job upkeeping trails or cultivating organic crops, we don’t recommend the following options.)

WWOOF
Harvest 22 varieties of figs in Malibu. Help build an off-the-grid dwelling situated at 10,000 feet in Colorado Springs. Rake wild blueberries and make wine in Phillips, Maine. What is this strange bourgeois migrant labor, you ask? There are some 1,200 farms associated with WWOOF U.S.A., the American chapter of World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. (There are thousands more across the planet, but costly flights make extreme penny pinching more of a challenge.) The exchange: You work for a half day, and the farm owners, which you’ve hopefully vetted (and they you, crazy eyes), provide food and shelter. No previous experience extolling the virtue of the soil is needed, but you do have to be at least 18 years old to work on your own. (Those younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult.)

The length of a farmstay is determined by you and your host, and can vary from a few days to a season. Gaining access to WWOOF’s online database of farms costs $30.

Appalachian Trail Work Crew
Working as part of a volunteer crew to build and protect the Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a decidedly couch-free affair. Trail crews tackle large-scale projects such as trail relocations and rehabilitation, and bridge and shelter construction. The work is rigorous and there are no “vacation days” if you’re working for the minimum week-long stint. But what you do get, if you’re so disposed, is the chance to pass on the 75-plus-year legacy of a 2,181-mile trail that runs from Georgia through Maine, the pursuit of which has given men, women and children the freedom to grow wizard-like beards without recoiling in society’s mirror. As part of the bargain, you also get food, transportation to the work site, the chance to share a group tent, work tools and equipment, and crew leadership. Volunteers are responsible for providing their own camping gear.

Apparently, there are quite a few hardy noble souls ready to take on the task — there’s often a waitlist for the first-come, first-served positions, which are filled in equal parts by men and women, with ages ranging from 18 to 80.

Not interested in sleeping on a stranger’s couch or getting your hands dirty on vacation? Check out these nine creative ways to save big on your next trip. And don’t forget to use our handy travel budget calculator for planning a wallet-friendly getaway!

Ever been on a volunteer or working vacation? Tell us about it below.


– written by Dan Askin

broken suitcase “Hey, buddy, stuff’s falling out of your bag,” said a customer in line at the Denver Airport Hertz. My suitcase zipper was ripped, and I was leaving a trail of balled socks and rolled T-shirts.

US Airways had ruined my bag. But beyond ranting to strangers on the Internet (there are enough stories of satanic airlines taking pleasure in stuffing passengers into sardine cans, gleefully destroying baggage and watching us boil as we stumble through the customer service labyrinth), what recourse does a flier have when his bag is destroyed?

Like most airlines, US Airways requires that passengers report any damage to checked bags at the airport. With US Airways, this must be done within four hours. (Some carriers allow up to 24 hours, but the complaint still has to be made at the airport.) So I zipped back to the baggage claim.

“I’m sorry, sir, we see this happen all the time,” said the claim rep. She told me that airlines are not liable for damage to wheels, feet, zippers and extending handles. “When the baggage handlers throw the bags, the zipper rips off the fabric.” Do they see a lot of smashed zippers when they gently place the luggage on the belt? She obviously had no answer, but she gave me a number to call and register a complaint.

I was then told to e-mail my story to Central Baggage Resolution, a Phoenix-based office only reachable by e-mail. I imagine CBR as a digital bonfire that’s endlessly destroying correspondences. I learned that once CBR receives my claim, it’ll be 14 – 21 working days before I hear from them.

As I continue to hold my breath, I’ve started researching other ways to protect checked bags in the future. My plan of choice is simply to never check a bag, but here’s some info I found:

Both third-party insurers and credit card companies sometimes offer baggage insurance. American Express, for instance, offers free and for-fee baggage protection policies for card holders. I called Amex to learn about its $9.95 per roundtrip flight “premium” baggage policy, which covers checked bag damages up to $1,000. Here’s how it works, according to the customer rep: “File a claim with the airline at the airport. Get the denial.” Then file a claim with AmEx. The claim is reviewed with a licensed rep — but obviously there’s no guarantee that they’ll rule in your favor. The representative did say, however, that there are technically no exclusions for type of damage, ripped zippers included.

According to Smarter Travel‘s Ed Perkins, third party insurers can vary widely — and again, it’s up to fliers to start with the airline, get the denial (or some coverage if you’re lucky) and then file a second claim with the insurer. As always, it’s essential to read the fine print to see what the coverage cap is and if there are exclusions for certain types of damage.

Quite honestly, it all seems like a massive hassle. I paid $50 for someone to rip my bag, rendering it unusable without turning it into a silver mummy. I just want my $50 back. And maybe US Airways could throw in the $3.69 for the roll of duct tape.

Have the airlines ever lost or ruined your luggage? Share your story!

–written by Dan Askin

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

vineyard grapes chorizo olives manchego cheese mediterranean mealLast week I shared the worst meal I’ve ever had while traveling: a cast-iron skillet filled with a seething potato mass and rapier-sharp fish skeleton, accompanied by a noxious yuck-berry soda administered only to keep from choking. Here’s the best meal I’ve ever had:

It was 1999, and we were on the dusty road from Cordoba to Granada, heading for the Alhambra, a 14th-century Moorish stronghold that’s an endless showcase of pools and patterns (mesmerizing arabesques). My father, brother (who was studying at the University of Cordoba) and I were in a rented Peugeot five-speed, flying past olive and grape vineyards, when the rumble of three stomachs jolted the little auto. As is the norm when driving through the southern part of Spain, we pulled over at the first cafe we saw.

It wasn’t a complicated place — red and white checkered tablecloths — and it was nearly empty. “Que quieren?” the waiter asked.

Puedo tener una plata con queso y otras cosas,” I said, blushing, in mangled Spanish. What we got was an antipasto plate filled with Manchego cheese (kudos to the La Mancha goat, who lives a couple hundred miles north of where we were), olives from the nearby vineyards, roasted red peppers and little slices of piquant chorizo. In between swallows, we drank wine made from the vineyard connected to the cafe. The combination of Spanish cheese, wine and sausage can often prove too much to take for excitable Americans, and sure enough, someone tipped over the wine carafe. The waiter mopped up the red and brought us another. What a waste. I would have slurped it up off the floor.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever had on the road?

– written by Dan Askin

fish skeletonI once examined a meal on the road as a scientist would an alien life form: with extreme care, a sense of awe and absolutely no intention of consuming it.

The setting was Moscow, 1997. Outside, old women who’d lost their pensions hawked cigarettes amid the Soviet gray of sky and concrete. We were in a “three-star” hotel dining room in a dingy, slightly bug-ridden hotel. Was there a menu? No, just a cast-iron skillet filled with lumpy white plasma.

The first taste was reminiscent of potatoes. A gooey, glue-like consistency left the food sticking to the roof of my mouth. With each bite, my oxygen intake was further diminished. (Was this an espionage tool to asphyxiate foreign dignitaries during State dinners?) The beverage to wash it down was a steaming carbonated liquid with an unidentifiable berry-like fruit on the label. The berry seemed to be glowing. Birds, which we all know can eat things humans can’t, were swarming the berry bush.

Thirteen years later, the acid-aftertaste still clings to the back of my tongue.

After a few bites, I could no longer swallow. So I explored with my fork, scalpeling through the membranous top layer and delicately separating glob from chunk. The consistency was creamy in places, milky in others. After some careful rooting, I exhumed … a fish skeleton. The whole thing struck me as a morbid version of the Kinder egg sold at the nearby souvenir kiosks. But instead of a plastic toy inside a chocolate egg, I got a rotting fish skeleton inside a noxious blob of potato-matter.

This was in the early days of digital photography, so no one thought to use their 35 mm or disposables on a food shot. Hopefully the prose picture was enough.

I’ve vomited up mine, so now it’s your turn: What’s the worst meal you’ve ever had while traveling?

– written by Dan Askin

Brilliance of the Seas In the early a.m. hours Sunday — Alexandria, Egypt time — 2,060 Royal Caribbean passengers awoke to the shatter of glasses falling off shelves and the sensation that their beds had turned into soapbox derby cars racing back and forth across the cabin. The spirits of ancient Egypt had summoned a Mediterranean squall producing 70-knot winds and 30-foot waves, and with Brilliance of the Seas’ stabilizers disengaged as it approached the port of Alexandria, the ship lost control and listed violently several times.

“The closet door in our balcony cabin ripped from its hinges and flew across the room,” posted Lifelong Cruiser on our sister site Cruise Critic. “My wife narrowly missed being hit by the airborne closet door, which weighs 50+ pounds.”

There were only 30 injuries, the most serious of which were two fractures, according to a statement from Royal Caribbean. Damage to the ship included broken furniture, a gym left in shambles (the “ellipticals looked like monkey bars,” said a Cruise Critic reader) and a smashed piano. The ship’s seaworthiness was unaffected, and the cruise surges on — albeit with a slightly shaken passenger base.

In exchange for experiencing what can only be described as a moment of existential terror, Royal Caribbean initially offered $200 in onboard credit to each passenger ($400 for those in suites). Some passengers argued that $200 wasn’t nearly enough, and a Cruise Critic reader reported seeing at least one complaint letter circulating on the ship. Then, just as the compensation debate was heating up, Royal Caribbean upped the ante from $200 to a full refund for the 12-night Eastern Mediterranean cruise. A similar cruise in late October 2011 costs more than $1,600 per person for the cheapest cabin.

Why the sudden sea change?

“Once the team was in the office, and able to assess the situation, we decided that a full refund was warranted,” said Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez.

Some onboard offered a slightly different perspective. “The captain admitted in his first address within 30 minutes of the incident that a ‘mistake’ had been made by slowing down in harbor traffic, causing the stabilizers to disengage,” posted Lifelong Cruiser on Cruise Critic. “[He] described the incident as a ‘mistake’ more than once.”

I put the question to Martinez: Did the line switch gears and offer the full refund because the captain admitted that a mistake had been made?

“Not at all!” she said.

A mistake indeed. But does a free cruise really make up for minutes of sheer terror at sea? Tell us what you think!

– written by Dan Askin

street performer In the same way that a great meal of sausage, sauerkraut and local altbier can be the focal point of a trip to Berlin, the talented guy with the sax and hat on the French Quarter sidewalk can create a powerful imprint from which the rest of a travel memory can build.

We’ve all seen the diminutive Incan flutists who, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, are sent to proselytize the reverb-filled sound of the Andes. But what about those artists who seem to have no twin, those street performers who take the man-and-guitar concept somewhere new and bizarre? Here are a few of my favorites:

London, England. My head was in a rag-y Metro paper during the busy red line Tube rush. A stubbly pair, one with a guitar, stepped onto the train. Without fanfare, they begin singing in a melodious staccato chant: “If you can’t shave in the public toilet, where can you shave?” After a second of confusion, the car’s commuters were a-grin. I was somewhat suspicious, as the duo wielded a clarity of voice and harmony you might not expect from people used to shearing in a public loo — but it was two minutes well spent either way.

Key West, Florida. Mallory Square is known for sunsets and street performers. I’ve seen your typical magicians, sword swallowers and fire-eaters — but I’ve also watched a man eating a shopping cart piece by piece (or displaying an uncanny knack for sleight of hand) and a talkative chap riding a painful-looking 30-foot-high unicycle while juggling. The most memorable performance was the Movin’ Melvin show.

Melvin appeared with a flat wooden mat for dancin’ on and one of those giant Utz pretzel drums full of dollars. Melvin started tap dancing. Then Melvin stopped, looked at the audience with a smile and said, “People say, ‘Melvin, can you move faster?!’” The crowd repeated the call. Then shouted Melvin, “Now watch me now!” And he moved faster than previously. The whole crowd got involved, and the line, delivered louder and louder in unison, became, “Melvin, can you move faster?!” The climax came when Melvin could no longer move faster.

New Orleans, Louisiana. In a town where it seems that every third resident has some sort of crazy talent, differentiation is key for street performers. Puppet master Valentino Georgievski, whose show features puppet versions of famous musicians singing and dancing, understands this well. I caught his show on a recent trip to the Big Easy. Sax-playing puppets got down on one knee while growling out that high note. A James Brown-looking puppet in a gray suit fell into a split during the break-down of “The Big Payback.” Another puppet stalked the mic in between the lines of “Low Rider,” a favorite move of more fleshy lead singers. It was all very soulful stuff, and it was just as much fun to watch the puppet master, who grooved along behind his marionettes.


Your turn: What street performer left an indelible mark on your brain?

–written by Dan Askin