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van soye family 2003Most young American adults have a limited “understanding of the world beyond their country’s borders,” according to the National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literary Study.

Understanding geography is something travelers take for granted. It’s both a requirement and a side effect of travel. For Sandy and Darren Van Soye, it is a passion.

In 2003, the couple took their daughters, then ages 10 and 12, on a nearly five-month trip around the world. Through e-mails to their teachers, the family shared the voyage with the entire school. Classmates loved the missives from across the globe, and the experience changed the Van Soye daughters.

“Both girls came home understanding where places are and that much of the world lives differently than they do in California. They had more confidence and were also not afraid of interacting with adults,” said Sandy.

Years later, the couple read that 29 percent of U.S. 18- to 24-year-olds could not find the Pacific Ocean on an unlabeled map. “We decided then and there to find a way to give back as we travel, to hopefully get kids around the globe excited about geography,” said Darren.

van soyes 2012The couple saved for seven years to take a 14-month trip to 50 countries on six continents. Now 229 days into their trip, they have covered 36,000 miles, hiking to some of the most remote places on Earth between visits to cities and towns. Lest you think the extensive trip is just a scheme to acquire bounteous frequent flier miles, the Van Soyes stay “close to the ground” using local public transportation (bus, train, ferry) whenever possible. Their goal is to experience the world more closely and minimize their carbon footprint.

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Far from being just a vacation, however, the Van Soyes are using their excursion as a “teaching moment” for 55,000+ schoolchildren across the globe. Some 850 educators from 20 countries are following the Van Soyes’ journey with their students on the couple’s Web site, Trekking the Planet. There are also 300 or more “armchair travelers,” many of whom are fellow cruisers (the Van Soyes, avid cruisers, have incorporated five Princess cruises into their itinerary so far).

The couple provides weekly newsletters with a country-specific educational module, an article or two and often a video. “The goal is to establish a two-way link with students where they can witness first-hand the world ‘out there’ and even pose and receive answers to their questions in near real time,” said Sandy. The materials are free and accessible via their Web site as well as Facebook (Facebook.com/TrekkingPlanet) and Twitter (@TrekkingPlanet).

They’ve visited schools in American Samoa, Thailand, Laos, Nepal and Latvia so far. “The schools in Laos were some of the most remote places we have visited – the buildings were made of bamboo and had dirt floors. But to see the kids’ faces as we talked about our journey made the trip worth it! During our visits, we always ask the students questions that we received from the classrooms that are following us,” said Sandy.

“Technology has changed so much since our last trip in 2003. Last time, we used a stylus-based Casio Cassiopeia to write our e-mails and resize our photos. We used Internet cafes to send the e-mails along with our photos. Now we can do the whole thing with our smartphones,” said Darren.

Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas

The Van Soyes are doing their part — first for their children, now for the world’s children — to broaden the understanding of young people, helping them prepare for a future that is, as the Roper report says, increasingly global.

– written by Jodi Thompson

tablet computer wi-fiSo many of us spend our lives connected via the Internet. We earn our wages and pay our bills online. With whatever money is left, we shop online. We stay connected to family and friends. We read our news, our books and magazines on electronic devices. We share photos, ideas and snarky comics via social media.

You’d think travel would be the one time we go off the grid, but it’s usually not possible. Travel is often work-related, requiring the posting of content and the reading of emails. We may leave family behind who we have to check in on while we’re away. And a few of us — not naming any names — are addicted to electronics. We panic when there’s no Wi-Fi available. And we don’t like to pay for it.

Yes, Virgin America offered free in-flight Wi-Fi last holiday season, and perhaps will again. And there have been a few promotions where Wi-Fi was offered free or discounted, but for the most part, we pay. When Internet service is provided by Gogo, as with AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, United and Virgin America, it costs $4.94 to $19.95 for mobile devices (smartphones, tables and e-readers) and $11 to $49 for computer devices (laptops and netbooks). JetBlue and Southwest each have their own Internet service. Southwest’s is not yet widely available, but its free portal contains content such as a flight tracker, shopping and games, all at no charge. Internet access beyond that is $5 all day, per device.

Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas

Paying for Wi-Fi annoys us , even if it’s only $5. We have hotspot entitlement syndrome. And we’re not alone. When we asked on Facebook if you’d use Wi-Fi if it was offered in air for free, few of you would take a pass.

Hilary Huffman Sommer said, “I would definitely use it, especially when traveling for work or when work intrudes on my leisure travel.”


Gregory Ellis also would log on to work. “Nothing else to do while in those busses with wings,” he wrote.

“Absolutely,” wrote Michele Cherry. She admitted to the amount of time she can kill on Facebook and that she can’t sleep on airplanes. And she already pays for Wi-Fi on international flights or longer domestic ones.

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Ofelia Gutierrez and Marcia Cloutier also already pay for Wi-Fi, so getting it for free would be a bonus.

“Beats listening to my husband snore,” Vicki Hannah Gelfo explained.

Not everyone is leaping at that free bandwidth. Saadia Shafati Shamsie would prefer airlines not offer free Wi-Fi; she’d be too tempted.

And Deb Crosby won’t give up her sleep and reading time while flying.

One more naysayer to continued connectivity is Lavida Rei. “I would prefer if everyone stayed off the grid and off my nerves while in flight,” she wrote.

We’ll take that under advisement, Lavida, and we’ll tap lightly when answering that e-mail.

– written by Jodi Thompson

There are certainly reasons to avoid leaf peeping in its usual incarnation. You could easily overdose on quaintness while choosing the plumpest pumpkin or dearest antique. If you shy away from scores of children wielding candied apples while running wild through cornstalk mazes, you may want to skip the season altogether. Understood.

But you’d be missing some glorious sights, whether you go simply for the visual treat or allow the colors to enhance a trip with an entirely non-related agenda. Don’t allow the scarecrows to chase you away. Indulge. Here are some places we wouldn’t mind visiting during the autumn months. We may even enjoy a crisp apple or some pumpkin ice cream along the way.

Take the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway up the Hotake Mountains, near Nagano, Japan. From both the double-decker gondolas and the observation deck, you’ll enjoy a glorious view.

hotake japan



Explore the monasteries of Echmiadzin, Armenia. Perhaps sight a few khachkars, outdoor stone slabs carved with detailed motifs, which can still be found although many have been destroyed.

khachkars armenia



Drive the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway through the beautiful Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. This National Scenic Byway, which runs through Virginia and North Carolina, is bordered with deciduous trees, such as oak, dogwood, hickory, buckeye and ash.

blue ridge parkway



Skip Paris in the springtime and visit in autumn. The fall foliage in Jardin du Luxembourg easily rivals its colorful May blooms.

jardin du luxembourg paris



For more lovely landscapes in autumn, don’t miss the Butchart Gardens, just north of Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. You’ll find a serenity impossible to locate in a corn maze.

butchart gardens




Eight Unique Ways to Experience Fall


Where will you take in the fall foliage this year?

– written by Jodi Thompson

hotel milano terrace san juanWe often talk about travel bucket lists filled with big-budget trips that require a lot of planning. They’re stressful, at times, because so much goes into them and we have such big expectations. There’s a reason these trips often stay on the bucket list for many years; it’s much easier to just escape, spur of the moment. So we keep a few trips in our back pocket. Not mega-bucket-list trips, but cheap and easy trips we could take without much planning and with minimal damage to our savings.

San Juan has been calling me lately. For about $520 total, my husband and I could fly there on AirTran. I’d stay at the Hotel Milano, only 15 minutes from the airport, but in the middle of the old city. The family-owned property has free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel, a necessity for me. I can imagine having coffee on the rooftop terrace.

Since this isn’t a bucket list destination for me, I wouldn’t feel any pressure to do anything except wander, eat empanadillas and drink rum. Since it is hurricane season in the Caribbean, I could most likely continue to do at least two of my intended activities should the weather turn foul.

A completely different, yet equally satisfying back-pocket trip, for me, would be Acadia National Park in Maine. I want to challenge myself on the Dorr Mountain trail, a series of granite steps up the mountain, much of it through the forest. (Can you imagine the autumn foliage?)

I’d fortify my hike with popovers on the lawn at Jordon Pond House. I’d stay at the Moseley Cottage Inn, preferably in a room with a working fireplace. Sure, the rate is a bit high for my strict budget, $205 per night, but my husband and I would drive to Maine, saving on airfare.

The qualifications for a back-pocket trip are simple: cheap, quick and no stress. Not much of an itinerary is required. Need inspiration? Check out our travel deals.

We’re all about extensive travel, with plenty of planning and packing. But sometimes we just have to throw a few things in a bag and go. That’s why we need a couple of trips in our back pocket. Which destinations are in yours?

– written by Jodi Thompson

nagasaki peace memorialAugust 9 is Nagasaki Day, a day set aside to memorialize the 70,000 killed when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city in 1945, prompting Japan’s World War II surrender. U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos was in the city to take part in a peace memorial. Just three days earlier Roos and Harry Truman’s grandson attended a similar ceremony marking Hiroshima’s dark day.

When we travel, we’re often focused on visiting destinations that are festive and fun, that bring us great joy. But Nagasaki Day reminded us that many destinations are focused on more painful history. We visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., the Waterloo Battlefields, the Normandy American Cemetery and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

Some of these destinations not only call attention to a disturbing past, but also celebrate our ability to rise above it. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Chosen, according to the UNESCO Web site, because the buildings “bear witness to its somber history” and “symbolize the triumph of the human spirit, of freedom and of democracy over oppression.”

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We visit such sites to learn from history, much of which we must be certain to never repeat. We honor those who have fallen. We feel connected to humanity — at its best and worst. Some of it is just so uncomfortable, though. It evokes the phrase “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Through the lump in our throat that these places may form, we find strength and hope.

There are elements of so-called “dark tourism” in mainstream travel as well, though we often forget that fact. Who winces at the pain inflicted within the crumbling walls of the Coliseum or the majestic Tower of London? Do we consider the loss of life required to build the Great Wall or the pyramids when we snap photos of ourselves smiling in front of them?

And is there a point at which we should we draw a line? Do we visit Chernobyl, Saint-Laurent of “Papillion” fame and its neighbor, Devil’s Island? Even seemingly innocuous sites such as Salem, Massachusetts, have a murky history.

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We may visit macabre sites to pay homage to courage and perseverance. Perhaps sometimes it is more exploitative — a titillating, glad-it-wasn’t-me experience. Either way, we know we’re visiting someplace important, someplace where events changed the course of history. And, if we’re lucky, we walk away a little more human for the experience.

Do you make pilgrimages to sites with dark or painful histories? And are you comforted or afflicted by your trip?

– written by Jodi Thompson

heathrow airportSome of us love crowds. We can be found catching beads at Mardi Gras, hurling tomatoes at Tomatina and, at the London Games, ogling the athletes at the Horse Guards Parade — the venue for beach volleyball.

Not me. Ever since I spent a horrific New Year’s Eve in Times Square, I’ve been a bit crowd-phobic. The cheer isn’t enough to override the crowds and the commotion at the London Games. For the executive editor of our sister site, Cruise Critic, it’s the increased security at Heathrow that keeps her from London, even as a layover to Europe.

“The increased security is sure to add even more chaos to an already chaotic airport — and I still won’t feel completely safe,” Carolyn Spencer Brown told us.

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She’d like to avoid Heathrow this summer, but some airfare deals are making that difficult. “British Airways is offering cheap fares to Europe this summer,” Brown said. “I wonder if people are avoiding Heathrow.”

If they are shunning Heathrow and London, it’s a typical tendency to avoid visiting cities that host the Olympic Games. The Telegraph recently reported that Terry Williamson, chief operating officer of JacTravel, said “normal tourism” in past Olympic host cities post-Games dropped significantly during the events and “took some time to recover.”

Will the traffic, the crowds, the amped-up security, the missiles on rooftops keep you away from London this summer — even as a layover? Or will you be there — in the midst of it all? Vote in our poll below.

– written by Jodi Thompson

electronics rechargingMy brother — a total tech geek — recently posted a picture on Facebook of his hotel bedside table during a trip. It was cluttered with gadgets recharging via the power strip he packed. My other brother countered with a bedside shot of his own, a bottle of wine and a new wine opener that he obviously hadn’t yet mastered, as the cork was bobbing in the half-empty bottle. I was appalled — by the technophile brother’s pic, not the oenophile brother’s pic — until I realized I often travel with just about as many gadgets. My electronics and their accoutrements seem to swallow more than their fair share of my carry-on’s real estate.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if my hotel provided me with a recharging station, so I could at least leave power cords at home? Aloft properties, such as the one in Brooklyn, have a plug and play connectivity station that charges all your electronics in addition to linking to a 42-inch LCD TV. And according to CNN.com, the Ecclestone Square Hotel in central London features in-wall docking and charging points for your electronic devices.

The Opus Vancouver hotel goes one better: It provides guests with the use of an iPhone, as reported by USA Today. This is especially cool if you’d otherwise have to pay for international roaming fees on your own phone. Plus, the important numbers for the hotel (concierge or housekeeping) are already programmed in. And they wipe the iPhone clean when you check out to protect your privacy and security. The Opus also offers an iPad 2 in every room, loaded with an iPad virtual concierge.

The Peninsula Hotel in Tokyo lends iPods to guests. The devices at the Peninsula can guide guests on walking tours of the Imperial Gardens and other city sites.

You could also use these loaner devices to take photos and upload them to social media sites where your sibling will try to one-up you.

Would you prefer to use electronics supplied by your hotel, or would you never leave home without your own gear?

– written by Jodi Thompson

feecationDo you feel as though you are nickel and dimed — or more like $10′d and $25′d — to death when you travel? It seems that as you plan your trip budget, you have to allow for about one-third again of the costs in fees. Of course, many charges you can avoid. But wouldn’t it be nice to throw budgets to the wind and treat yourself to that $8 airline meal or $15 late hotel check-out?

With the new online subscription rebate service Feecation.com, you can. Here’s how it works: You pay a membership fee of $14.97 per month. Within 30 days of incurring a fee while traveling (consult the list of payable fees under the site’s terms of service), you send proof of payment via either e-mail (use your smartphone to take a picture of the receipt and e-mail it while still on vacation to streamline the process) or the U.S. Postal Service. Then, within three to six weeks, you should receive your refund.

Travel Budget Calculator

How much will that refund be? Feecation.com will cover $10 per instance of incremental airline fees up to $500 per year, and $10 for each hotel, car rental and Wi-Fi fee up to $250 per year in each category. Theoretically, you could be reimbursed $1,250 each year, which more than covers the cost of membership. To make the cost of membership worth the $179.64 a year, you should travel often enough to incur at least 18 charges and also be organized enough to actually send in your receipts.

Caveat emptor: Travelers should remember that while fees are annoying, information gathering is an even bigger money-maker than charging you to check a bag. Not only are you providing your contact and credit card information, but you’re also providing a lot of information about yourself via the receipts you send in for reimbursement. Be certain to read and understand all 3,000 words of the company’s privacy policy before you provide any personal information. It does state that you can opt out of the company’s information database, but that option isn’t comprehensive. Feecation.com offers a 30-day trial, but you still must provide all your information and cancel it before the 30 days is up.

Would you be willing to give Feecation.com a try?

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– written by Jodi Thompson

traveler mistakeTravel teaches us so many things about the places we go and the people we meet. It also teaches us what we should never, ever do again. Things like ordering from a menu we can’t read with no help — on a squeamish stomach; or renting a car that is just too small for three across the back seat; or not packing swim shoes for a trek through a mangrove swamp.

But we’ve already learned from our plentiful travel blunders, so we asked you on Facebook: What travel mistake have you promised yourself you’ll never make again?

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There were a few stories hidden in some of your gaffes. We can only imagine what happened to inspire Jacqueline Wong Miller to write: “I will always remember to check my carry-on bag for random fruit I may have put in there BEFORE I go through customs, especially if I ever go to Chile again!” Or Shereen Rayle to write: “I will never rent a car out of the country again without looking at the crime rate and researching parking garages/lots nearby.” We wouldn’t want to lose a rental car or be accused of trafficking plums, either.

We’ve all experienced goof-ups that have cost us money. Vida Morkunas learned to exchange currency at a bank, Sara Sarit Nakash discovered the value of travel insurance and Willis C. Self III found out why he shouldn’t forget to validate his ticket on an Italian train.

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Some of your responses were familiar old lessons, well learned. We nodded in agreement when Dalia Garcia promised herself she’d never wait too long to book a flight using miles, always bring a sleep mask and earplugs, and never take more than three pairs of shoes. Elizabeth Hotchkiss Meade and Nancy J. Faria both agreed with Dalia’s last lesson, promising themselves they’d never over-pack again.

There were a few responses that we haven’t yet come upon ourselves, but we’ll certainly take note. Christi Couron will never again book too many tours. Marvin Washington won’t allow Expedia to randomly select a hotel for him.

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We do, however, hope that no one will ever have to repeat the mistake Laurie Whitney Willits experienced — a mistake that wasn’t even her own. She wrote: “I will think twice and argue before I ever give my passport to the staff of a cruise ship … we were on the Concordia and they told us they would give us [our] passport back when we got off the ship. But no one was there to hand it to us when we got into our lifeboat!”

We’re glad you’re safe, Laurie. We’re glad you’re safe.

Which travel mistake will you never repeat?

– written by Jodi Thompson

What’s going on in this photo? Come up with a clever caption for this zany travel pic and you could win an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

thar desert jarasthan india camel saree dunes


To enter, drop your wittiest one-liner (or two-liner, or three-liner…) in the comments by Sunday night, May 6, 2012, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll contact the winner and reveal our favorite caption on Monday. Please be sure to abide by our community guidelines when commenting.

The photo above depicts a young woman in a saree and her camel on the dunes of Thar Desert in Rajasthan, India. Do you have a funny or bizarre photo that we could use for a future caption contest? Send it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put “Caption Contest” in the subject line.) If we feature your photo on our blog, we’ll send you a prize.

– written by Jodi Thompson