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man holding his hand out thumb downAny hotel that tries to stamp out negative reviews using strong-arm tactics is going to find itself more criticized than it ever thought possible. But are such tactics legal?

That’s what we wondered after reading about the Union Street Guest House in Hudson, New York, which only recently rescinded a policy by which it held back $500 of a wedding couple’s deposit for every negative review of the hotel posted by a wedding guest.

Christopher Cole, a partner at Crowell & Moring LLP says forbidding bad reviews can be legal so long as the policy is part of a contract the reviewer has agreed to beforehand

“Anybody can get you in a private contract to agree to keep quiet,” Cole told IndependentTraveler.com. “Somebody who had clear notice of this policy coming in and signed up for the wedding and paid their deposit and agreed to it – that’s the choice they make. I think a lot of people might not choose to do business with somebody like that if they saw the policy up front.”

35 Travel Tips Revealed: Top Secrets of Travel Writers

He compared such a policy to an employment termination agreement, in which an ex-employee is forbidden from saying anything bad about the company for a certain period of time.

Without such a contract, hotels cannot forbid guests from writing negative reviews.

“Opinion is protected by the First Amendment,” Cole said. “There’s a pretty forgiving standard for opinion, particularly for a business, which is typically entitled to a lower level of protection … You have more latitude to speak your mind.”

The difficulty of suing over opinion was made clear after a lawsuit leveled against TripAdvisor by the Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Tennessee was dismissed by a judge. The hotel had sued for defamation after it was given the top spot on TripAdvisor’s 2011 list of America’s dirtiest hotels. For a defamation suit to succeed Cole said, the plaintiff must prove “actual malice,” meaning TripAdvisor had known what they were publishing was false. “That is a very high standard,” Cole said, especially when opinion is at the heart of the matter.

Write a Trip Review

– written by Dori Saltzman

Author’s Disclaimer: IndependentTraveler.com is a subsidiary of TripAdvisor.

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, August 4, 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 Gwen McGraahan, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

puzzle asking which countries have stars in their flag


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

– created by Dori Saltzman

A canyon at Australia's UluruOf the five destinations on my ultimate travel bucket list, I have managed to tick off one so far: Australia. And it was everything I could have hoped for — which was fortunate because, as with many bucket list trips, it was expensive and required a serious time commitment.

But was it really fortunate?

No, it wasn’t.

You see, just stepping foot on Australian soil isn’t what made going there such an amazing bucket list trip for me. It was that I did it the “right” way. The right way for me, that is.

Australia is a huge country with lots to offer visitors. There are the vibrant cities in which you’ll find art museums, fine dining and lots of shopping; unrivaled natural attractions from the barren but beautiful Outback to the Great Barrier Reef teeming with life; a colorful criminal past and a rich Aboriginal culture. And then there are the Aussies themselves, laidback folks with a great sense of humor and a love for beer and barbecue.

But which part of this vast Down Under do you take in? Do you try to see it all, spending just a little time in any one place? Do you narrow it down and pick out just a few highlights, ignoring all else? How do you make such a once-in-a-lifetime trip as special as it can be, so that it truly is a bucket list experience?

Ask
In order to make any trip all you want it to be, you must first ask yourself, “Why am I going here?”

There is no wrong or right answer, but be honest with yourself, as the answer to this question is the start of planning your perfect trip. Is it simply important to you to tick off a new destination? Or are you intrigued because you’ve read some of the best new chefs are coming out of Melbourne? Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to hold a koala and feed a kangaroo?

11 Best Australia Experiences

Research
Once you’ve decided why you’re going, you can research the various ways to visit. If what’s important is simply being in the place and seeing its most iconic sites, a guided tour might be your best bet. On the other hand, if you’re most fascinated by a specific aspect of the place — the Aboriginal culture of Australia, let’s say — then finding day tours or attractions that focus on that one interest should be your priority.

In my dreams of Australia, I was always fascinated by the wildlife, the Outback, the Aussies and the Aboriginal culture. So everywhere I went I made sure to seek out these things. In Sydney, I visited a zoo that allowed me to cuddle a koala and feed kangaroos. Near Cairns, I chose to skip the Great Barrier Reef and instead stay on a cattle station for three days to get to know the owner and see what life was like in the Outback. On my visit to Uluru, I only booked Aborigine-led tours so I could experience the country’s interior from their perspective.

All these experiences resonated with me because they were the things I already knew were important to me. I didn’t need to see the Sydney Opera House; I don’t particularly like opera and touring a theater would not be enjoyable for me. I didn’t need to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge; if I were going to exercise my body that way, it would be on a hike in the Blue Mountains. And to this day I don’t really feel I missed out by not snorkeling off the Great Barrier Reef. Instead, I’m glad I skipped the seasickness and panic I always experience when snorkeling from a boat.

But other visitors to Australia might have left unsatisfied without some or all of those experiences.

Bucket list trips are dream trips, literally. We dream about the destinations years before ever visiting. We visualize what it will be like. But it’s only by being aware of those dreams and our expectations and then finding experiences that match them that we can actually make our dream bucket list trips come true.

How to Make Your Dream Trip a Reality


– 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, July 14, 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 Craig Faanes, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

spanish speaking countries


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

– created by Dori Saltzman

dori saltzman Todai-ji Buddhist temple nara japanA lot of people who know what I do for a living assume I’m such an expert at independent travel that I plan everything on my own and eschew any kind of organized tour. After all, who really wants to be herded from place to place with 50 strangers, some of whom are super annoying? And what “true” traveler likes to be rushed between sites with not enough time to linger and take it all in?

But the truth is I like tours, especially in places I’ve never been before, where English is not widely spoken, the culture is very different and I’ve got limited time.

Doing tours in such places is relatively stress-free. On a recent trip to Tokyo with my husband, I wanted to be sure that I’d get to see all the most important tourist sites in as little time as possible (we only had two days), so we’d have time to explore other places on our own. The easiest way to do that was to book an organized tour.

On one half-day tour with tour company Viator, we visited Tokyo’s most popular Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple, and walked around part of the Imperial Gardens. We also passed by Skytree Tower, the Japanese Diet and the Imperial Palace.

I didn’t mind the zipping-past-sites part of the tour; we ended up going to Skytree Tower another day on our own time, and we were both totally uninterested in touring the Diet. The Imperial Palace is off-limits all the time, so we weren’t going to get too much closer anyway.

12 Best Japan Experiences

I will admit I would have liked more time at the Meiji Shrine. Located in a large park, there are lots of paths to walk, and there was more to see at the shrine itself when our guide started herding us out.

There were plenty of tourists there on their own. But without our guide, how would I have learned how to correctly pray at a Shinto shrine? (Throw a coin in the donation area, bow twice, clap twice, think your prayer, and bow again.) How would I have known that most Japanese people come to Shinto shrines to celebrate good things, like marriages and births, and go to Buddhist temples when someone dies?

Some of what the guide told us I could have read in a guide book, but not all of it. That detailed information that goes beyond guidebook fare is another reason why I like organized tours. A good guide will tell the story of the places you’re visiting, giving you the details and providing the nuances that make each place special. And they’ll answer whatever questions they can.

They also give me an idea of what places I might want to go back to if I’m ever in the area again. With only a day and a half in Kyoto, we chose to spend our entire time on guided tours. I’m glad we did; it was the easiest way to visit all the area’s main attractions. If we ever go back, I know we’ll visit the Golden Pavilion again as there was so much we didn’t get to see. And we’ll be able to explore the rest of Kyoto knowing that we don’t have to run around just to cram in the “most important” sites.

Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

Do you do enjoy organized tours when you travel or do you prefer to wing it on your own?

– by Dori Saltzman

This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five words 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:

foreign-currencies


Enter your list of currencies in the comments below. You have until Monday, June 16, 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 Alex, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

foreign-currencies


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 words 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:

deserts-of-the-world


Enter your list of deserts in the comments below. You have until Monday, May 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 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 Sandy DeSiervo, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

deserts of the world


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

– created by Dori Saltzman

Domino SparrowI have a weird sense of humor. I admit it. So I was intrigued to discover that the Museum of Natural History in Rotterdam, Netherlands, is home to an exhibit entitled “Dead Animals with a Story.”

Sure, there are dead animals in natural history museums all the time, but these had stories that involved things like dominos and McFlurry cups. I had to see this exhibit for myself.

So while everyone else from my river cruise went to see yet more Dutch artistry, I found my way to Rotterdam’s Museum of Natural History. It took three sets of directions before I found the small building tucked into the corner of Museum Square. That was just fine with me; all the wandering added to my sense of adventure. I was on a quest to find these storied animals.

For such a small museum, it also took me a while to find the exhibit that had so caught my attention. For starters, neither the map nor the museum’s signage was in English. So I headed up the stairs and into every room I could find. Nothing, just your usual stuffed animals on display.

Could I be mistaken? Had I found my way to the wrong museum? Had they scrapped the exhibit?

The World’s Weirdest Museums

Back down the stairs.

I was exiting yet another exhibit room, disappointed at my failure, when I spied the stuffed remains of a hedgehog with his head inserted into a McFlurry cup in a display case right at the entrance to the museum. I’d passed right by it!

The low, long, narrow display case was placed unobtrusively along the wall immediately inside of the entryway. The stuffed animals in the case were small and easy to miss — a house mouse, a tiny bat, a sparrow, the unfortunate hedgehog, numbered among the maybe 10 animals displayed.

But what made these poor critters different from the hundreds of other animals in the museum?

Well, the house mouse, for instance, wasn’t killed in just any old house. He (or she) was one of several hundred killed in 2012 when the Second Chamber (part of the country’s House of Representatives) experienced a mouse infestation. When the curator at the museum saw the news of the problem, it occurred to him that his collection did not have a house mouse in it. So he sent a request to the government asking if they would send one of their dead mice to him. His request was soundly refused. The government, he was told, does not give away its trash — of any kind. And yet, a few days later, a package in the official envelope of the Second Chamber showed up, no return addressee listed, with a dead mouse still in the trap enclosed.

Then there is the “domino sparrow.” This unfortunate bird had the dubious honor of garnering international attention when he was shot and killed after knocking down some 23,000 dominos (of nearly 4 million!) at the annual Domino Day event in Leeuwarden just four days before the event. The shooting outraged animal rights groups around the country, and they took the shooter and the organizers of Domino Day to court. Prosecutors opened an investigation and issued a 200 euro fine to the man who killed the bird.

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

And then there’s the hedgehog. His is a tale of environmental caution for everyone. Once quite large, the Netherlands’ hedgehog population has almost halved in the past 20 years. Though the main cause of death is cars, a significant number die after inserting their heads into ice cream cups (the kind with triangular openings for spoons) and then being unable to get back out because of the structure of their neck and spine. These poor critters either starve to death or run around blindly until they fall into a canal and drown. The specimen in the Rotterdam museum is one such unlucky hedgehog. The good news is that an animal lovers’ group in England lobbied McDonald’s to replace the McFlurry covers with those that have smaller holes, thereby protecting hedgehogs from this sad fate.

One caveat about the museum exhibit: all the signage is in Dutch. I had to turn to a Dutch guide on my river cruise for translations (based on photographs I’d taken of the exhibit). Therefore, most of my enjoyment of the displays came after the fact.

What’s the strangest exhibit you’ve ever come across in your travels?

– 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 words 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:

countries in africa


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

countries in africa


Stay tuned for further chances to win!

– created by Dori Saltzman

fried matzah passover ms inspireTry explaining a Seder plate to someone who barely understands what Passover is. Not an easy task, but one I found myself undertaking on a recent river cruise aboard Tauck’s newest boat, ms Inspire.

The second to last night of my nine-night Dutch Waterways cruise was the first night of Passover, my favorite Jewish holiday. I’ve only missed Passover with my family one other time in my 41 years, back in 2004 when I was backpacking around New Zealand. I went to a Seder at a synagogue and was one of maybe 100 tourists there. This time there would be no synagogue to turn to.

I packed matzah and a Haggadah, the special Jewish text that tells the story of Egyptian slavery and subsequent exodus of the Jewish people that all Jews use before and after dinner on the first two nights of Passover. The Haggadah outlines the elements of the Seder, which is essentially a ritual Passover meal.

My first day onboard, the maitre d’ invited all passengers to speak with him about their dietary requirements. I asked him if any other passengers had inquired about having a Seder onboard. He looked at me blankly.

“The special dinner for Passover,” I added, hoping that would help. He still didn’t quite get it, but one of our tour directors was there and immediately understood what I was talking about.

“Not yet,” he told me, adding that he thought there were probably a lot of Jewish people onboard and he’d see if he could find anyone interested in joining me. An hour later, he approached me in the lounge and said he had a couple for me to meet.

Marcy and Jeff Silverman, travel agents from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, were very interested, though they made it clear they were hoping for a shortened Seder (some can take up to an hour or more before you get to eat). My Haggadah has a shortened version, so no problem there.

Over the course of the next week I met several other Jewish passengers, though none were interested until I met Helen and Harvey Hacker. I mentioned the Seder to Helen, and she told me she knew Harvey would want to join in.

With our little group up to four, it was time to approach someone on the crew about actually setting up the Seder. An important element of the Seder is the Seder plate on which ritual items are placed to represent various elements of the story. These include, among others: a roasted egg, lamb shank bone, horseradish, green herb and charoset (a sweet pasted made of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon).

Away from Home for the Holidays

Two days before the first night of Passover, I approached Marina, the ship’s hotel director, to ask about setting up a small table at the back of the dining room for a Seder and putting together a simplified Seder plate. I asked her for:

– A roasted egg

– A roasted beet (it’s the vegetarian alternative to a shank bone, since it represents the same blood color, and is much easier to ask for than a meatless lamb shank bone!)

– Parsley and horseradish

– A small mixture of chopped apples and nuts (I figured that was easier than finding a charoset recipe)

– A bowl of salt water (needed to dip the parsley)

“No problem,” Marina told me with a smile.

I next asked Yener, one of the tour directors, if he could make copies of pages from my Haggadah so everyone could follow along. Another warm smile and I soon had four sets of pages to distribute. We were set.

On the first night of Passover, at 6:20 p.m., Marcy, Jeff, Harvey and I sat down at a table for six at the back of the main dining room. I had a box of matzah. The maitre d’ brought out our Seder plate and a large bowl of salt water. A waiter filled our wine glasses.

We took turns reading from the Haggadah in soft voices so as not to disturb anyone dining nearby. We said the prayer over the wine and sipped from our glasses, we took a drop of wine out for each of the 10 plagues, we dipped our parsley in salt water and combined horseradish with charoset. I even chanted the first two questions of the Four Questions, which are always asked by the youngest person at the table.

I wasn’t with my family, we weren’t drinking Manischewitz and no one spilled wine. But it felt like home.

9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

Have you ever celebrated a holiday away from home?

– written by Dori Saltzman