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active beach vacationThere seem to be two types of vacations — the busy and the beach. As wonderful as the busy vacation is — exploring cities and towns, experiencing new dishes and new views — it is the beach vacation that is, ultimately, considered the more relaxing, the more rejuvenating. Now there’s research to back that up.

A two-year study by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health examined the engagement of 2,750 Brits aged 8 to 80 with the natural environment. The research by Katherine Ashbullby and Dr. Mathew White found that all outdoor locations make us feel calm and refreshed. But it was the coast that was most psychologically beneficial, followed by the countryside. Urban parks were found least restorative.

Even after taking into account age, distance traveled, presence of others and the activity undertaken, participants still experienced the most positive feelings seaside. The researchers are unsure whether we enjoy the beach because we’re hard-wired that way or simply because we think we should.

The World’s Best Beaches

Surely, the sunshine at the shore is a factor. We need a bit of sun exposure each day to stay healthy. Our bodies produce vitamin D from the sun’s rays. The super nutrient not only protects us from heart disease, osteoporosis, and breast, prostate and colon cancers (according to the Archives of Internal Medicine), but it also helps guard against depression and insomnia.

Another recent study from the European Centre for Environment found that lower levels of sunlight are linked to allergies and eczema. So sunlight is good. But take care: Too much can cause severe burns, dehydration and skin cancer. It can even land you in trouble with the law, as it did recently for a New Jersey mother/tanning fan who is accused of taking her young daughter in a tanning booth with her.mom tanning booth

16 Ways You Know You’re Addicted to Travel

Perhaps the most salient point we should take from the British study about the benefits of the natural environment is that exercise in the open air is what provides emotional benefits, connecting with nature. Not sitting on our duffs in the sun.

Sounds like a really good reason to make your next R&R a busy beach vacation.

– written by Jodi Thompson

duct tape super heroWe all know one person who makes the yearly trek to, say, the Philadelphia Folk Festival or Burning Man. They wouldn’t miss the opportunity to pitch their tent in the Schwenksville mud or the Black Rock City dirt. It’s all about the music at Old Pool Farm or the — um — art in the Nevada desert.

However, we can’t quite wrap our heads around the Avon Heritage Duct Tape Festival in Ohio. Duct tape? Sure, it’s great for travel mishaps, such as securing a broken piece of luggage, and we’ve all used it around the house. We’ve even chuckled at the creativity of folks who fashion a wallet or dress out of the sticky stuff. But a three-day festival? Stick me to my seat! There’s even a parade that starts at the high school and ends at the cemetery. We might need a six-inch piece of the stuff to tape our mouths shut so we don’t scream.

The World’s Weirdest Museums

If celebrating duct tape is your thing, the ninth annual Avon Heritage Duct Tape Festival will be held June 15 – 17 in Avon, Ohio, the home of Duck Tape brand duct tape. The Father’s Day weekend event claims to draw more than 40,000 duct tape enthusiasts, likely helped by its lack of admission or parking fees. The first 500 attendees will even receive a free roll. (We’re just a bit concerned how that roll might be used by the end of the day when festival goers get tired and cranky with each other.)

The theme this year is Duck Tape on Safari, so there will surely be liberal use of the company’s zebra- and leopard-patterned tapes on the parade floats and at the crafts table. There will be a free animal show (live animals, sans tape). And to make the festival even more irresistible, an artist will display his duct-tape portraits of Bob Dylan, Mother Teresa and other celebs. We can’t make this stuff up.

If you’re looking to add a few more quirky events to your calendar, consider these equally intriguing festivals. The SuperHero Street Fair is held in San Francisco in August. Just imagine donning your Spider-Man jammies and joining all the other boys and girls in their Batman codpieces and Super Woman bustiers. We certainly hope they secure all rooftop access doors to prevent overzealous leaping of tall buildings in a single bound.

No super powers? Visit the Gilroy Garlic Festival in nearby Gilroy, California, and you’ll be able to repel people in a single breath. Or try another natural repellent by waiting until October for the Alabama Butterbean Festival. Either may come in handy at the Great Texas Mosquito Festival in July.

16 Ways You Know You’re Addicted to Travel

How about you? Is there an annual festival you never miss? One you’ve always wanted to attend?

– written by Jodi Thompson

postcardly

Sending postcards while traveling is a quaint habit some of us are loathe to let go. Yet it’s such a hassle to gather our loved ones’ addresses, buy stamps and find a post office, when we can just upload a few shots to Facebook or send a mass e-mail.

A new service called Postcardly looks to bring postcards into the technological era. Take just a few minutes to register online and create an e-mail for all the people to whom you’d like to send a postcard — a simple process — and you can create and send personalized postcards as easily as you send an e-mail.

Picture-Perfect: Tips from a Travel Photographer

Here’s how it works. Once you register at Postcardly.com, you can load your contacts’ names and mailing addresses into the system. Each will be assigned a unique e-mail address to which you can send a photo and brief message (700 characters or less).

Postcardly will print your photo on a piece of 4.25″ x 6″ cardstock (standard U.S. postcard size) with your message on the back. A real, tangible postcard should reach your recipient within a week. (Our test postcards arrived in three days.)

The cost is $0.99 for a domestic postcard and $1.98 for international mailing. Postcardly gives you three free postcards to start when you sign up for a monthly plan ($4.99 for five postcards, $9.99 for 15 or a one-time charge of $19.99 for 20) and you can earn extra freebies when you get others to sign up.

What we liked:

-You can send your own photo instead of a generic shot.

-It’s convenient — you can send a postcard from your computer, smartphone or tablet.

-It’s great for staying in touch with the technophobes in your family. If Grandma is afraid of Facebook, you can send her postcards of the same photos the rest of the family enjoys online. Bonus: She can decorate her fridge with your smiling face or show you off at bridge club.

-Military APO and FPO addresses are priced the same as domestic addresses.

Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas

What we didn’t like:

-It’s not practical for large mailings, such as birth announcements or party invitations.

-The picture quality isn’t much better than what you could produce with a decent photo printer at home. (For best results, upload the highest-resolution image you can.)

-There’s no pay-as-you-go option, although you can cancel at any time.

Final verdict: Could be a fun alternative to Facebook updates — especially for those who appreciate mail or like to put their fridge magnets to use.

– written by Jodi Thompson

ami vitale portraitWe all take them — the posed pics in front of iconic structures and vistas. But how do we transform our travel photos into a narrative of our journey? To help us, we turned to Nikon professional photographer Ami Vitale, who tells intimate stories through her camera lens. We learned not only how she creates a connection with her subject, but also how we can forge our own bonds.

Vitale’s work has appeared in such publications as National Geographic, Time and Newsweek. She has won numerous awards, exhibited in museums and contributed to a collaborative book project. Based in Montana, Vitale is working on her first solo book of stories behind the images she’s taken.

IT: Many of your photographs are close-ups of people. Do you ask permission to take someone’s photograph before you do it? Many travelers feel shy doing this; how do you approach the conversation?

Ami Vitale: Always. I usually sit down and talk with people for a few minutes, hours or even days to make sure that they are comfortable with my being there. If I don’t speak the same language, I will make gestures first asking if it’s okay or I will ask if someone nearby can translate. I always invest time in the people I’m photographing. It’s more respectful, I learn more and it elevates the image from being just a snapshot to an image with a real story.

Recently I was in India during the Pushkar Camel Fair and I was photographing a girl named Subita. I was not the only one taking her pictures. Around us, there were hundreds of digital cameras, some cheap, many expensive, firing away.

I spent a couple of days with Subita and her family. At no time were we alone, and even when before dawn broke, we huddled around a fire, at least a half dozen people were looking at her only through their lenses. The only time any of them acknowledged me was to ask me a technical question, like what ISO would work best in the stingy light.

Later, Subita would tell me how de-humanizing the impact of eager tourists and their cameras were on her. Made her feel like an animal is how she put it to me. No one even said “namaste” or “hello” to her. Those who surrounded her were after only one thing — what they considered a great shot. It was a hunt; she was simply the prize.

The era of film had a lot to teach us photographers; about approaching people slowly, the importance of building trust, and crafting a story even as you fire the shutter. Limited by the number of shots, we waited to get deeper into the story before blowing our film. And we were not defined as much by one amazing, accidental image, but rather the tapestry of a great and complex story we could illuminate.

If some of the people who surrounded Subita had taken the time to spend even a few hours with her, learning a bit more about her life, they would have had a story and not just an image. There are of course huge advantages to using a digital camera. It can help you tell a story better, but the important thing to remember is that anyone can take a picture. It takes a good storyteller to be a great photographer.

And that always takes time.

ami vitale african women


19 Tips for Better Travel Photos

IT: What’s a shot or a moment that most people miss with their travel photography?

AV: Instead of getting only posed photos with people looking directly into the camera, it is more revealing to get images that show something deeper about their culture and lives. It’s pretty simple. It only takes time and the willingness to speak with the people you want to photograph.

IT: If we could all just do one thing to make our travel photographs better, what would it be?

AV: Take more time in one place. Instead of zipping around to dozens of locations in one day, slow down, get to know the people and culture more deeply and the images will show that knowledge and trust.

ami vitale boy


7 Amazing Photography Apps for Your Phone

IT: How does being a photographer change the way you travel?

AV: I don’t consider myself a traveler even though I’ve traveled to almost 85 countries. Instead, it’s about telling stories and learning about the people and places I visit. The experience is not about me but rather about the people who open their lives to me.

It’s a tough job if you are serious about it, and you have to be serious about it if you want to make a living at it. The truth is, very little “clicking” happens. That is about 10 percent of the job. The rest is sheer hard work: planning, researching, editing, negotiating and finding unique ways to tell stories. The trick is to get access to places that no one else can get to, and the secret to this is to know your subject better than anyone else.

So my advice to those who dream about this is to find a story close to you – maybe even in your backyard — and make it yours. You don’t need to travel abroad. What you do need to do, however, is tell a story better than anyone else can, using your own unique perspective. If you find your own story and show complete and utter dedication, then you will find a way to carve out a career.

ami vitale boat


Read more about Ami Vitale and see her galleries at Nikonusa.com

– written by Jodi Thompson

cnngo hitlerThere are seemingly endless tips on how not to offend the locals while traveling. We know that tank tops and shorts won’t fly past the flying buttresses of Notre Dame. We know not to leave a tip on the table while dining out in Tokyo if we don’t want to be pursued out of the restaurant to have our money returned by an insulted server.

We try to familiarize ourselves with local customs. Pack scarves and slip-on shoes. Make an effort to blend in. (See our brand-new 12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place for advice on this front.) We make this concerted effort not to offend out of respect for cultures different from our own. However, there are times when we, as the outsider, may feel awkward, insulted or even threatened by local customs or behavior.

Imagine walking through a mall in central Bangkok where a popular store sports a nearly life-sized doll that resembles the hate-child of Ronald McDonald and Hitler. Young people imitate the faux Fuhrer’s salute, posing for photographs with it. (Check out CNNGO.com for more photos.) They wear T-shirts bearing cartoonish images of the Nazi dictator as a pink Teletubby, in a panda outfit or with the fast-food chain mascot’s red bouffant hairdo and yellow jumpsuit. To Western eyes, it’s offensive. It’s disrespectful. It’s also ignorant.

Similarly boorish is hefting a beer with a Buddha-tattooed arm right outside that very same shopping mall in Bangkok. In fact, Thailand is considering a ban on tourists getting religious tattoos because we fail to understand how offensive it is to drink alcohol, party and misbehave with such sacred ink showing.

Fair enough. We can respect that. But some things make us bristle — like being rebuffed if, as a woman, we try to sit down alone at a cafe in Morocco, or dancing the night away in a Jamaica club before we realize the lyrics to the music encourage homophobic violence.

Culture Shock: Outside the Comfort Zone

How do you respond when you find yourself at odds with local ways or laws?

– written by Jodi Thompson

earth and moonIn addition to being Presidents’ Day, yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic trip into space. Although there was some planning, he packed no bag and he didn’t have much choice in his travel wardrobe. And he certainly didn’t have an annoying travel companion. In 1962, Glenn boarded Friendship 7, not much more than a converted ballistic nuclear missile, and was blasted into space, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.

There was no travel insurance. In fact, several earlier launch attempts were abject failures. NASA scientists weren’t even sure if Glenn’s eyesight would survive zero-G weightlessness. But NASA was in a hurry. There was a rush to get Glenn in orbit, whether it was safe or not, whether it was possible or not. Russia had beaten the U.S. in the space race five years earlier by launching Sputnik, a silver ball with a flashing light on it. National pride was on the line.

Now that NASA’s manned space program is idle, the only ride into space for an American astronaut is aboard a Russian rocket. Yet the demand by civilians for space tourism is growing. It’s a final frontier for those who have checked everything else off their must-see list.

Top 10 Undiscovered Destinations

vss enterpriseThe U.K.’s Sir Richard Branson began organizing Virgin Galactic in 2004 and began test flights in 2008. Virgin Galactic has its sights set on launching wealthy adventurers into orbit from the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, currently underway in New Mexico. The space vehicles are “designed and built with revolutionary, but proven technology” according to Virgin Galactic’s Web site, with safety “engrained in the culture of our space line operation.”

To experience space travel, you’ll have to be age 22 to 88 at the time of the launch and endure two days of G-force and safety training. From 50,000 feet in the air, not the ground, you’ll accelerate to about 3,000 mph, nearly four times the speed of sound, and launched to about 68 miles above the Earth’s surface. The total trip takes about 3 hours, with only a few minutes out of your seat to experience weightlessness and the stunning views.

9 Destinations to Visit in 2012

Although Virgin Galactic has been taking deposits to hold reservations on SpaceShipTwo since 2005, the price has been reduced and will continue to go down. The current starting price for flights is $200,000 with refundable deposits starting from $20,000.



– written by Jodi Thompson

A few years ago, I traveled with my mother when she — and I quote — wanted to see the Grand Canyon before she died. We flew to Las Vegas, rented a car and toured the Valley of Fire and the Hoover Dam. Once at the Grand Canyon, we were able to see quite a bit of it despite my mother’s mobility constraints — and a spectacular glass-enclosed helicopter ride allowed us to view the rest. It was a wonderful trip. I’m not certain how many times I annoyed her, but I do know that I threatened to toss her off the edge of the canyon only once, so I’d call that a successful trip.

grand canyon



grand canyon aerial view



Turns out that my mom isn’t the only senior who’s got the Grand Canyon on her bucket list. “National Parks in the West” made a recent list of the top vacations for senior travelers in 2012, put together by YMT Vacations. Here’s the full top five:

5. Ireland

4. Alaska Cruise and Train Tour

3. National Parks in the West

2. Rhine River Cruise

1. Hawaii

For all the seniors out there, do you agree with this list? What are your own must-see destinations this year (or before you die, if you tend toward the dramatic)?

For the younger set, have you ever traveled with a senior? Would you do it again? (Or are you serving time for tossing him or her over the edge of the Grand Canyon?)

Learn More About Senior Travel

– written by Jodi Thompson

airlines behaving badlyThis post is part of our “Airlines Behaving Badly” series, which chronicles the oft-wicked ways of the air travel industry.

Spirit Airlines wants your help. Proving that there’s more than one way to view just about everything, Spirit is asking consumers to pressure their government representatives to end consumer protections.

Spirit Airlines has been having a rather public hissy fit, ever since the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) new regulations took effect last week that require airlines and ticket agents to include all mandatory taxes and fees in their advertised airfares, and to disclose baggage fees.

Some airlines complained; most just changed their advertised prices to include taxes and fees and also changed the asterisk next to the airfares to reflect that change. Consumers now know the actual price of their purchase, just as they do when they buy a gallon of gasoline or a pack of cigarettes.

Spirit, however, dug in its heels. Perhaps distracted by its campaign to overturn the regulations, the airline simply didn’t advertise prices on its site for several days. The dollar signs and asterisks were still there, just no numbers. Instead, Spirit.com greets prospective passengers with a bold warning graphic next to the statement: “New government regulations require us to HIDE taxes in your fares. More info here.”

warning graphic


Clicking on “more info” takes you to a “say no to hidden taxes!” petition with links to representatives and senators. In the appeal, Spirit claims that by “hiding” taxes in airfare, the government can then “quietly increase their taxes.” And as “the transparency leader and most consumer-friendly airline,” Spirit doesn’t support the new DOT regs and asks consumers to help “stop this injustice.”

Yet the DOT’s mandate to show actual costs isn’t what really got Spirit’s knickers in a knot. The new regs also allow consumers to hold a reservation without payment or cancel a booking without penalty for 24 hours — provided the reservation is made one week or more prior to the departure date. In a press release dated January 31, 2012, Spirit posits that the new regulations regarding the 24-hour hold and no cancellation penalties will result in “unintended consequences” and cost consumers “millions” by forcing the airline to hold seat inventory for those who may not pay for it, leading to unfilled seats, and, somehow, lost American jobs. Spirit maintains that the 24-hour hold rule is consumer-friendly, “but comes at a cost all must bear.” And when Spirit says “all” it apparently means its customers.

Despite the fact that the new rules have only been in effect for a week and it’s unlikely there is hard data yet on costs to the airlines, Spirit is being proactive and has introduced the “DOTUC (Department of Transportation Unintended Consequences) fee,” a $2 each-way surcharge on the consumer.

When we tried booking a flight on Spirit, we did not see this fee listed with the rest of the taxes and fees. (Perhaps because it’s not a government-mandated fee, Spirit doesn’t have to disclose it?) Ironically, of all the extra charges that applied to our ticket, the highest by far was Spirit’s own “Passenger Usage Fee,” which you can only avoid by purchasing your ticket at the airport.

passenger usage fees


Gotta love such a consumer-friendly airline.

– written by Jodi Thompson

kapital inn bed and breakfast budapestHere’s the answer to last week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel quizzes by subscribing to our blog.

We have a winner! The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is 125 euros per night. Nancy, who gave the first correct answer, has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

The room pictured was one of two deluxe rooms at Kapital Inn Boutique B&B on the Pest side of the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary. The four-room boutique inn is on the penthouse floor of a 19th-century building, in the heart of the city next to Andrassy Avenue, in Budapest’s District VI. Daily breakfast is included in the rates, with a fully stocked complimentary snack stash for post-sightseeing noshing.

To check rates and read about other properties in Hungary’s capital city, see our favorite Budapest Hotels.

– written by Jodi Thompson

Every Friday, we’ll feature a photo of an unidentified hotel here, on our blog, and we want you to guess how much it costs to stay there. Leave your guess in the comments below and you could win a prize. Get the answer in your inbox by subscribing to our blog.

What’s the price of a night in a European capital on the Danube? Enter your guess in the comments, and be sure to include a valid e-mail address so we can contact you in case you win. The first person to guess closest to the price of the accommodations — in the hotel’s local currency — without going over wins an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Here’s the property:



Here are three hints to help you win:

-The room offers a queen-size bed, en-suite bathroom, complimentary minibar and flat-screen TV with 75 channels.

-The rate includes complimentary breakfast on the hotel’s 600-square-foot terrace, or indoors in inclement weather.

-The property is located within walking distance of a stop on the oldest metro in Continental Europe.

We’re looking for the maximum nightly price based on double occupancy as listed on the property’s Web site for high season, excluding holidays, coupon codes or package rates. Enter your answer by Sunday night, January 29, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time to win. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Monday.

– written by Jodi Thompson