Home

Explore. Experience. Engage.

Home Travel Tips Travel Deals Destinations Trip Reviews Forums Blog
The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

woman on airplane listening to headphonesThe next time you’re hitting 35,000 feet in altitude aboard a JetBlue or Virgin America airplane, you might want to pull out a spiral notebook and start taking notes. That’s because in addition to the usual assortment of also-on-DVD Hollywood blockbusters, these airlines are serving up some educational entertainment options to fliers who crave a little mental stimulation with their bag of pretzels.

JetBlue started the trend in December when it began offering 10 recorded college lectures to passengers. Using their own mobile devices, fliers can audit an introductory marketing class from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School or learn about the dynamics of infectious diseases from Penn State University. Music lovers can sit in on an introduction to guitar class from the Berklee School of Music, while astronomy nerds can geek out on the science and technology behind astronomical discoveries from the University of Edinburgh.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

The airline also is providing access to a few practical, how-to courses as well, with video classes on how to cook vegetables, brine meats and read nutrition labels.

This month, Virgin America followed JetBlue’s lead when it began offering “Great Courses” audio and video. The selection of recorded lectures from well-known professors include excerpts from “The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries,” “The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins,” “The Skeptic’s Guide to American History,” “Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science” and many others.

Volunteer Vacations

Both airlines will rotate new lectures in every few months.

What types of lectures would you be interested in — or would you rather just watch a movie?

— written by Dori Saltzman

This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five countries that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter. For examples, check out this blog post.

Ready to give it a try? Here’s this week’s challenge:

index card puzzle


Enter your list of countries in the comments below. You have until Monday, January 26, 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 logo item. 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 Ella Farantatos, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

countries with a monarchy


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

— created by Dori Saltzman

a satellite image of europe at nightAs if we ever really need a reason to travel to Europe, the year 2015 nevertheless gives us several good excuses to shell out the money for a plane ticket across the pond.

The most important one is the dramatically improving exchange rate. The euro recently hit a 12-year low against the U.S. dollar, and could soon be worth less than the greenback. In addition, England, Lithuania, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany are among the countries that offer particular justifications for a European sojourn, from celebrating important moments in history to commemorating a significant contributor to modern culture.

Here’s why you should consider visiting Europe this year.

England Celebrates the Creation of the Magna Carta
The document known as the Magna Carta, first written in 1215, was one of the first attempts to limit the power of a ruling entity and provide some level of freedom to “the people.” Over the years, the Magna Carta has inspired subsequent efforts, including the Constitution of the United States.

Six two- to four-day tourist itineraries have been created as part of the 800th anniversary celebration. Each “trail” covers a different aspect of the history of the Magna Carta and takes visitors to cities including London, Salisbury, Kent and others. Additionally, London’s Temple Church will be offering free London walking tours from June 1 to September 20. And for those who want to see copies of the original Magna Carta, there are four which will be displayed in various exhibits throughout the year.

13 Best England Experiences

200 Years Ago at Waterloo Napoleon Did Surrender
History and war buffs take note, one of the world’s largest battle reenactments will take place over two days this June in commemoration of the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. The battle saw the end of Napoleon’s reign and brought peace, at least for a little while, to much of Europe. More than 5,000 people, 300 horses and 100 cannons will be used in the reenactment, and all are welcome to come participate or simply watch. Can’t make it to the battlefield on the exact days? Onsite guides offer a several tours (including those designed for slow walkers) of the battlefield seven days a week. Several museums are also available including the visitor center on the battlefield site, the Wellington Museum in Waterloo and Napoleon’s headquarters on the main road nearby.

In Memoriam, 125 Years: Vincent Van Gogh
July 29, 2015, will mark 125 years since Vincent Van Gogh died. Exhibits celebrating his life and body of work will be offered to the public in cultural institutions and art museums all over the world. Some of the most impressive exhibits will be in the Netherlands, Van Gogh’s birthplace. At the Kroller-Muller Museum, located in the Hoge Veluwe National Park, you’ll find the Van Gogh & Co exhibit between April 25 and September 27. The exhibit will concentrate on art styles popular at the end of the 19th century — still lifes, vistas, cityscapes and portraits — and will include more than 50 works by Van Gogh, as well as several pieces from his contemporaries. From September 25 to the middle of January 2016, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will feature Munch: Van Gogh, which compares and contrasts the works of Van Gogh and Edvard Munch through the use of their paintings and drawings. One beautiful attraction to check out will be the Keukenhof Gardens, which in 2015 will have a theme of “Van Gogh, 125 Years of Inspiration.”

9 Best Netherland Experiences

Germany Celebrates 25 Years of Unity
Last year Germany threw a party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This year, the country honors the 25th anniversary of the legal reunification of the country. The largest celebrations will take place on the Day of German Unity (October 3), but you can be sure the country will be raising a beer stein throughout the year.

Lithuania Makes History, Joins the Eurozone
Lithuania will become slightly less off-the-beaten-track in 2015 when the country becomes the 19th nation to join the Eurozone and adopt the euro as its national currency. The country’s entry into the Eurozone means that exchanging money will become simpler and credit card use will become more widespread, both of which make visiting the country easier.

12 Best Germany Experiences

— written by Dori Saltzman

This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five countries that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter. For examples, check out this blog post.

Ready to give it a try? Here’s this week’s challenge:

index card puzzle


Enter your list of countries in the comments below. You have until Monday, January 5, 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 logo item. 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 Jenn, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

countries that don't use a latin alphabet


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

— created by Dori Saltzman

This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of countries that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter. For examples, check out this blog post.

This month we’ve tweaked the puzzle. For each letter, we’re asking for two countries. The key: in one country end-of-year holidays are during the winter, but for the other country those holidays are in the summer. Ready to give it a try? Here’s this week’s challenge:

index card puzzle


Enter your list of countries in the comments below. You have until Monday, December 15, 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 logo item. 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 Edwin Hendrix, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

country pairs


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

— created by Dori Saltzman

The Coliseum in Rome with purple flowers in the foregroundI’ve never quite gotten the whole Seven Wonders of the World thing. Isn’t wonder-ful subjective? What others find awe inspiring, I sometimes find shrugworthy. The Christ the Redeemer statue, for instance, which in 2007 was named one of the Seven Wonders of the New World, stirs absolutely nothing in me. Conversely, places that have amazed me (Australia’s Uluru being one) others have found mildly interesting at best.

11 Best Italy Experiences

And how do we even define a “wonder”? Is it a great work of humanity? Is it a stunning natural landscape or phenomenon? Is it something that represents a monumental moment in time?

We, all of us, answer this question differently, which raises the question what are the “wonders” we have encountered on our travels?

11 Best Australia Experiences

IndependentTraveler.com reached out to some of our contributing editors, as well as our readers on Twitter and Facebook for their lists of the wonders they’ve encountered on their travels.

Without further ado, here are our many Wonders of the World. Please share your list in the comments below.

Tree growing in the ruins of the Ta Prohm TempleBrittany Chrusciel, Contributing Editor
Ta Prohm Temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Mangal Mahadev (108-foot-tall Shiva statue), Ganga Talao, Mauritius

Jenny Szymanski Jones (via Facebook)
Victoria Falls, Zambia
Gulfoss Waterfall, Iceland
Grand Canyon, Arizona, U.S.A.

Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief
Petra, Jordan
Big Sur, California, U.S.A.
Fjords, Norway

A photograph of the Lotus Temple in New Delhi IndiaKingshuk Mazumder (@KingShuk03 via Twitter)
Lotus Temple, New Delhi, India

Erica Silverstein, Contributing Editor
Great Wall of China
Yosemite National Park, California, U.S.A.
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

@jayme_p via Twitter
Magens Bay, St. Thomas, U.S. V.I.
Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

Jessica McMillan (@jedijesser via Twitter)
The Ink Pots, Banff, Alberta, Canada

Ruins at Masada IsraelChris Gray Faust, Contributing Editor
Pantheon, Rome, Italy
Masada, Israel

Ashley Kosciolek, Contributing Editor
Colosseum and Vatican City, Italy
Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland

–written by Dori Saltzman

two hands holding a paper that says thank youThanksgiving season is a time to take stock of life and focus on all the positives, a time for gratitude and appreciation. With so much of my life centered on travel, I thought I’d take some time this season to reflect on all the people I’ve met on the road — even if just for a moment — for whom I am eternally grateful.

There have been many: men and women, mostly nameless, who have offered a helping hand when I needed one or opened their homes to me when I was far from my own home.

Like the unseen man at the Miami airport who paid for my dinner and gave a $20 bill to my waiter to give to me when all the credit card machines and ATMs in the airport stopped working and I had no cash to pay for food after not eating all day. I never saw his face, only his back as he walked out of the restaurant into the terminal and disappeared in the crowd.

Or the elderly Irish lady in Killarney who ushered me and a friend into her cozy, warm living room when she saw us waiting in the pouring rain under one umbrella on a chilly summer day. She poured us tea, showed us photographs of her children and gave us hug when our bus showed up a half hour later.

12 Best Ireland Experiences

Then there was the kind clerk at a random hotel in Wellington, New Zealand, that I had walked into when I couldn’t bear to stay at a hostel one more night and needed just one night alone. He had no room, but sensing how upset I was, he made some calls for me and then drove me to another hotel on the other side of the city.

13 Best New Zealand Experiences

And I will never forget Blanche and Alex, a 20-something couple whom my sister and I met in the Glasgow train station. We had noticed them because we thought they looked cool and had stopped to ask them where the interesting places to hang out were. Instead of giving us directions, Blanche took us on a tour of the city, invited us back to their apartment and threw a party so we could meet a bunch of people.

10 Best Scotland Experiences

Others who showed me kindness where none was due include the man who picked me and my sister (scraggly-looking backpackers at the time) up on the side of the road in Northern Ireland (with his two small kids in the car) and drove us to the ferry terminal; the ferry employee who stalled the boat’s departure to get us on even though we were late; and the faceless woman on the New Zealand Interislander ferry who pushed a cup of water underneath the bathroom door when she heard me throwing up from motion sickness.

To these people — and the ones I’ve probably forgotten — I say: Thank you. I am grateful for the kindness you showed me.

Express your gratitude to the strangers who have helped you in your travels below.

— written by Dori Saltzman

This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five countries that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter. For examples, check out this blog post.

Ready to give it a try? Here’s this week’s challenge:

index card puzzle


Enter your list of countries in the comments below. You have until Monday, November 17, 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 Ginger, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

natural heritage sites


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

— created by Dori Saltzman

This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five places that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter. For examples, check out this blog post.

Ready to give it a try? Here’s this week’s challenge:

index card puzzle


Enter your list of UNESCO Natural World Heritage sites in the comments below. You have until Monday, October 27, 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 Karen Quinn, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

natural heritage sites


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

— created by Dori Saltzman

a woman on a train looking out the windowI fall for it every time: the idea that train travel is grand and romantic, much the same way I always expect New Year’s Eve to be exciting and momentous. With both, I usually end up disappointed and ready for it to be over.

I was recently reminded of this on a three-hour train ride from Newark, NJ, to Washington D.C. on Amtrak. Though it’s more of a commuter train experience than a travel one, I nevertheless initially visualized sitting in the dining car with a book and something pleasant to eat, relaxing all the way to D.C. The reality of the ride was somewhat different: the dining car was full and I had to walk through two train cars before I found an open seat – and the woman sitting in the adjoining seat was none too thrilled when I asked her to remove her two bags and discarded newspaper so that I could sit. Three hours turned into four when a “police action” in Philadelphia stopped our train cold. By the time I got to Washington D.C. I was hungry and irritated.

Looking back on it, I have no idea why I thought it would be different. I’ve trained it around Europe before and never walked away relaxed or feeling like I’d just had a grand adventure.

In fact, I have almost no memories of any of my long-haul train rides. My first “real” train ride, from London to the Holyhead ferry terminal in North Wales as a 21-year-old backpacker, is a complete blur. I slept through almost the entire thing, exhausted after a flight from New York City to London. I have a few bleary memories of opening my eyes to see what looked like a castle whir by and thinking how beautiful it must be and what a waste it was that I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

European Train Tips

Another overnight train ride, from Bucharest, Romania to Sofia, Bulgaria, is also mostly a blur, though my strongest sense memory is one of fear. Fear of finding out I would have to share my sleeping compartment with a stranger – this worry popped up at every stop we made, all through the night (I never did have to share, though I didn’t sleep very well either). Fear that if I left to go get food from the dining car, someone would break into the cabin and take my stuff (I stayed in my compartment all night, forgoing food for reassurance).

Yet despite my mostly unromantic and humble train travels, one of my most intriguing travel memories actually did take place on an overnight train from Prague to Zurich in the days before the European Union existed.

When we got to the German border, immigration officers got on the train and passed through every car, looking at each passenger’s identification. The German officer who entered our car wore a dour face and demanded our passports in a tone of voice that invited no argument. There were six of us in the car: my sister and me (U.S. citizens) and four Italians traveling together. The officer took the first Italian’s passport, looked at it, looked at her, looked at the passport again and then handed it back. He did the same with me. Then he took a second Italian’s passport. Looked at it, looked at the guy, looked at the passport again, frowned and held on to it. He then proceeded to check my sister’s passport and those of the two remaining Italians before finally turning back to the young man’s passport he still held.

The officer held up the passport and inspected it, then looked at the man for what felt like an eternity. Suddenly, the officer started laughing, handed the passport back and left. We were all stunned. That entire routine had been the officer’s idea of a joke — something to keep himself amused during the monotony of checking passports, I guess.

The World’s Most Spectacular Train Trips

That incident is one of my strongest memories of a six-week backpacking trip in Europe, and it happened on the train. Perhaps that’s why the notion of romantic, exotic, grand and, most importantly, memorable train trips has stuck with me. Train trips may be mostly boring, sleep-inducing experiences, but you never know what might happen.

Have you ever had a memorable experience while traveling on a train? Tell us about it in the comment section below.

— written by Dori Saltzman