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Hampton Inn CommercialSometimes you don’t want to know if something is clean or not (in my case, it’s just about anything I order in a restaurant). Other times, it’s all you can think about.

That’s the contention of a new Hampton Inn ad questioning the cleanliness of sheets in other hotel chains. Let’s take a look.

Effective, right? Perhaps, but according to an interesting piece by consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, it’s a little over the top. Writes Elliott, “Sheets are usually changed between guests, and sometimes state law requires it, but there’s no guarantee that they will be.” He does contend, however, that “it’s probably safe to say that all major hotel chains, including Hampton, instruct their housekeepers to change sheets between guests.”

Elliott indicates a few gray areas to keep us on our toes — for instance, what happens if a housekeeper sees a made-up bed but assumes incorrectly that no one slept in it the night before, then doesn’t swap out the linens? What-if’s aside, his overall conclusion is reassuring: “It’s possible for you to end up sleeping on someone else’s sheets. But if you’re staying at a major hotel chain, it’s highly unlikely.”

That’s the sort of thing I like to hear, though truth be told, I wonder about a lot of other things when it comes to hotel cleanliness. For instance, when’s the last time the bathroom was really scrubbed — and why is there hair in the drain? What’s that weird stain on the duvet? Actually, inasmuch as most hotels don’t wash bedspreads between guests, I try not to think about who — or what — was on top of that duvet before me.

Were those drinking glasses sanitized before they were placed in the room? Or were they left over from the last guest, simply rinsed out and deemed “ready to use”? Depends on where you’re staying. According to our guide on finding a clean hotel room, “It’s the law in both Missouri and Kansas that hotel room glasses and cups must be sanitized. Kansas’ law goes even further to state that washing of glassware must take place outside of the room.”

I have a friend who won’t go barefoot in a hotel room, for fear of what may be lurking in the carpet. I’m not that bad, but … well, now I’m thinking about that duvet.

– written by John Deiner

cell phone airplane plane man businessmanI knew the guy would be trouble the moment I spotted him ambling up to the Miami International Airport gate from which my Continental flight was leaving. I was on my way back to Philadelphia last week from a convention, and I just had a feeling that the unkempt loudmouth yakking on a cell phone and clutching a plastic cup of red wine would be sitting uncomfortably close to me.

I was wrong, of course. He was next to me. The last one on the plane, he stumbled down the aisle, looked at me huddled in the window seat, muttered an obscenity and squeezed himself into the middle. He immediately took out his phone and continued the argument he’d evidently left behind on the concourse.

Truth be told, I’m not a good flier, forever fearing every little bump and groan the aircraft makes. So I tend to take “rules” seriously, never questioning whether to put my seat back in the full and upright position or to turn off small electronics. My seatmate was a different breed — after the flight attendants made the announcement to stow away anything with a battery, he hung up the phone and started to text instead.

This went on for 10 minutes. No flight attendants caught onto the fact that his phone was still on, though I couldn’t get my mind off of it. Uncharacteristically, I nudged him as we began to roar down the runway and said, “Tell me you’re going to turn that thing off before takeoff.”

He muttered another obscenity and turned it off.

So what sort of danger were we in? Very little, most likely. I checked the Web site of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which prohibits the use of cell phones on flights. In 2007, the agency considered lifting the ban, but didn’t. Here’s why: “The FCC determined that the technical information provided by interested parties in response to the proposal was insufficient to determine whether in-flight use of wireless devices on aircraft could cause harmful interference to wireless networks on the ground. … In addition to the FCC’s rules, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits in-flight use of wireless devices because of potential interference to the aircraft’s navigation and communication systems.”

The Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters” program put the interference theory to the test and came out with a reassuring result: It found there was a “one in a million chance that some new cell phone could interfere with those instruments.” Slim chance perhaps, but still not worth the risk. Check out a two-minute abbreviation of the show here.

So what happened during our landing? Naturally, the guy couldn’t keep his phone off. Minutes into our descent, he pulled out his cell and started texting again. Once again, no flight attendant reprimand came. But this time, I just stared out the window and wondered why so many people think the rules don’t apply to them.

How do you feel about the use of cell phones in flight? Leave a comment or vote in our poll.

– written by John Deiner

There’s been a tremendous amount of talk lately among various travel outlets about hotel rooms. Not the rooms themselves, mind you (though that’s always important), but the views out the windows.

Ostensibly, all the chatter is linked to the arrival of Room77.com, a California-based Web site that purports to show you what you’ll be looking at from the window in your accommodations, thus helping you choose a specific floor or even a room when you book. You put in your specs and the site creates a virtual shot of the view. There’s also an iPhone app that lets you know on the spot (read: at check-in) what to expect when you open the door, thus allowing you to request an immediate room change and negating that annoying trip back to the front desk.

It’s all very cool, and very much in the nascent stages. Only three-star hotels and above will be offered, and only 16 cities are represented so far (though that translates to a rather impressive 425,000 rooms). You can’t book directly on the site yet, but that’s reportedly going to change soon. All in all, it has the potential to be a powerful force once it catches on — and it’s great fun playing around on the site to see how it measures up at hotels where you’ve already stayed (I, for one, am mightily impressed by its accuracy).

crowne plaza boston newton massachusetts turnpike hotel room view


For its part, USA Today conducted a recent poll asking readers if they cared to see the view from their hotel room prior to arrival. A whopping 88 percent indicated that they would.

I wonder: What’s up with the 12 percent who don’t?

A huge fan of hotels, I’m always a bit anxious at check-in, as much over the quality of the room as the scene on the other side of the glass. My strategy to avoid disappointment? I always ask for a room on an upper floor. Even if the hotel is three stories, it’ll keep me from being at eye level with the Winnebago in the parking lot or the kids racing around the pool. I also routinely request a “quiet” spot, which means nowhere near the ice machine or elevator bank, and away from the main drag.

How to Get the Best Hotel Room

That backfires on occasion, inasmuch as the dumpster is usually out back, leading to a fair (unfair?) share of garbage-filled vistas. And there’s no accounting for construction eyesores (which even Room 77 may not be able to avert). Once in Las Vegas, I was psyched to get a suite near the peak of the Venetian, a soaring monolith on the Strip. But when I got to the room and opened up the curtains, a giant crane was swinging a girder bound for the Palazzo, the sister resort under construction next door.

dumpster view starlite hotel miami


Room 77 wouldn’t have done much to help ward off the worst view I’ve ever had, at a bed and breakfast in Chincoteague, VA. Promising a “waterfront location,” the inn was actually plunked in the parking lot of a neighboring marina. A huge truck for storing fish — with a bellowing refrigeration unit that ran 24/7 — sat about 10 feet outside my window. When I asked to move, the only other choice was … the other side of the truck. I stayed put and kept the shades drawn.

What’s the worst view you’ve ever had?

– written by John Deiner

Mark your calendars. The National Cherry Blossom Festival has unveiled the most hotly discussed seasonal bellwether since that groundhog popped his head out of his home in early February.

That would be, of course, when the peak blooming days are for the cherry blossoms along D.C.’s Tidal Basin: March 29 – April 3. Check the National Cherry Blossom Festival Web site for details and the full schedule for the March 26 – April 10 event (think everything from parades and parties to road races and street fairs).

cherry blossom festival


No matter when the peak is (and it can swing wildly from mid-March to mid-April depending on how harsh the winter was), there are a few things you should know if you’re planning on going. I lived just outside of Washington D.C. for nearly 20 years and found that even though it’s Tourist Central (and why not?), those flowering trees were just as much of a local magnet. A few tips:

Avoid the crowds.
Easier said than done. While cherry trees are scattered around the city, the iconic forest of pink is sequestered around the Tidal Basin just off the National Mall — and the body of water itself is ringed by a relatively narrow sidewalk. So you can expect a tightly packed mass of humanity on weekends. I’d suggest going in the early morning (watch the sunrise over the blossoms — it’s magical) or in the late evening. During dusk it’s a beautiful scene, and you won’t have to push your way through a crowd. Even better, go during a workday because most everyone is, uh, working.

Watch your step — and your head.
The trees swoop fairly low in some spots, and you could conk your noggin if you’re not paying attention. There’s also a sea of dogs underfoot for some reason (really, why can’t people just leave Mugsy at home?), so it’s easy to get tangled up in someone’s leash or stumble over a wayward Chihuahua. Sidewalks can be a bit uneven in spots as well, so consider going off the trail and walking among the trees themselves.

Pack a meal.
I can’t think of a better place to eat than on a blanket tucked under the cherry trees, and there’s ample greenswards that allow you to do so. But because the Tidal Basin is fairly far afield from delis and the like, it’s best to arrive onsite with food in hand.

Wear comfortable shoes — and do the entire circuit.
You can’t get a really get a good sense of the breadth of the display without actually walking the entire route, so give yourself a few hours (at least). You can visit the F.D.R. and Jefferson memorials along the way (both are top-notch photo ops as well), and you’ll be surprised at how different the vantage points are as you progress.

Don’t drive.
Ok, you can drive if you arrive early enough and opt to park closer to the Mall, which is 15 to 45 minutes away by foot depending on where you settle. Just about every distance in Washington looks closer than it actually is, so be aware that you may have a schlep before the schlep. It’s best to take mass transit, but even the Metro will involve a bit of a hike. Or grab a cab and get out a few traffic-free blocks from the main event.

Stay off the trees.
That’s Rule No. 1 actually — there are warnings everywhere to that effect. But it doesn’t matter: There’s always someone clambering on a branch. If you witness this affront on nature, feel free to lash out at the culprit, and everyone will think you’re a D.C. native (they’re very protective of this amazing asset).

– written by John Deiner

airplane Is there something in the air? In this instance, the answer is yes. In the past few days, we’ve noticed a spate of reports regarding air travel that have left us overjoyed, irked or just plain exasperated. Let’s start with the exasperating one first and work our way down to a little good news.

Something’s not kosher here.

EasyJet, a budget airline based in the United Kingdom, has apologized to passengers bound for Israel after it mistakenly loaded a pile of pork products onto the aircraft. According to the Jewish Chronicle, passengers were offered “ham melts and bacon baguettes” during the flight, which originated in London. Other news outlets added that the airline normally serves kosher and vegetarian sandwiches on flights to Israel.

You wanted to go where?

An 80-year-old wheelchair-bound woman was inadvertently allowed to board a flight bound for Charlotte, N.C., when her destination was actually Dulles International outside of Washington D.C. The CNN report says the woman “allegedly received someone else’s boarding pass from a Delta Air Lines employee,” and then somehow made it through security and into the air with the mismatched ticket. The woman, who’s from Ethiopia and speaks no English, was reunited with her family on Sunday evening, hours after she arrived at the wrong destination. The airline and the TSA are investigating.

Well, we knew this was coming.

USA Today is warning travelers that the sudden rise in oil prices and increased overall demand for fewer seats will most likely lead to higher fares for both business and leisure travelers. It quotes airfare expert Tom Parsons as saying, “The higher the fuel goes, the more you’re going to have to pay. We could see another round of fare hikes very soon.” He says if you see a good sale for a summer fare, jump on it.

And, finally, some good news.

If you’re worried about whether you’re going to arrive safely once you set foot onboard a jet, an AOL Travel dispatch on a recent International Air Transport Association report should help put your mind at ease. “Airlines flying Western-built jets globally had the best safety performance in 2010 in the history of aviation, with only one crash per every 1.6 million flights,” it says, adding that “2.4 billion people flew safely in 2010 on 36.8 million flights, 28.4 million on jets and 8.4 million on turboprops.” There were 17 major crashes last year, compared with 19 in 2009; however, when Eastern-built jets are included, the overall number rises to 94 accidents — compared with 90 the previous year.

– written by John Deiner

whale watching Whale watching can be the most exhilarating way to spend a day of vacation, or a sunburn-inducing time-suck that’s more aggravating than fulfilling.

Don’t blame the whales, of course. They’re not there to entertain you.

I’ve done more than my fair share of whale watching, and perhaps even a share for you as well. My wife is a marine-biologist-turned-travel-agent-turned-baker, so when we’re in a location that offers whale watching, we’re usually quick to jump onboard the nearest boat, from the Jersey Shore (yep, there are humpbacks out there) to Maui (where it’s now peak season for fluke-peeping).

So when I came across an item on the travel Web site Jaunted purporting to offer “Five Tips for Getting the Most from Going Whale Watching,” I had to take a gander. Suck down some Dramamine? Fine. Lower your expectations? Sure. Bring binoculars? Whatever.

All good tips, really. But here’s one admonition it didn’t include: Leave your camera at home. Okay, you can bring it with you, but don’t plan on using it. I know every budding photographer wants to capture Moby Dick breaching the briny surf, but you know what? You may miss the Big Moment.

I learned this the hard way. Ten years ago on the Oregon coast, my wife and I were whale watching in a tiny boat that was being buffeted by high seas. Our guide, a young guy who looked suspiciously like the Gorton’s Fisherman, expertly navigated out to what he said were prime whale haunts, then told us we we wouldn’t go in until we saw one. As the sea threw us around the boat, I clutched my camera, waiting for the Big Moment. Finally, the captain told us to look to the north, and I grabbed my camera, started to hold it up to my eyes … and completely missed the beast surfacing a few yards away. I’ll never forget what the kid said to me: “Put the camera away.”

Since then, we’ve probably been whale watching a dozen times, and each time I’ve put the camera away. In Maui, there were so many Big Moments (read: whales flopping out of the water all around us) that I wished, for a second, I’d brought my Nikon. So I asked another passenger if he could e-mail me some of his best shots.

Sure enough, a week later he sent me 10 photos, all of them either blurry or mere fragments of the actual event. Heck, I could have done that. …

– written by John Deiner

couple hammock beach romance vacation travelSo it’s Valentine’s Day. Did you get the Hallmark card yet? The roses? The conversation hearts? The free booze on Southwest Airlines?

Yes, according to a Tweet from the airline, Southwest is giving away free “adult drinks” on all flights. Ostensibly, it’s meant to promote the airline’s tweaks to its Rapid Rewards loyalty program, but it’s timed nicely to coincide with all the lonely hearts flitting around the country today. If you miss it, not to worry: The airline is repeating the promotion on St. Patrick’s Day (hmmm …).

If you’d rather save some money than suck down a gratis gin and tonic at 30,000 feet, Spirit Airlines is offering $50 off round-trip flights with a special holiday deal. But move fast: You have to book by 11:59 p.m. ET today and fly from February 17 through March 4. Isn’t it romantic?

If you prefer the sea to the air, several cruise lines are offering special enticements for those who book over the next few days. In a sale starting today, for instance, Azamara Club Cruises is offering a bonanza of extras (a $500 onboard credit, Champagne, strawberries) for passengers booking an outside or higher-category cabin on select European itineraries. Check out the details on this and several other promotions at our sister site, Cruise Critic.

If you’re as sick of this cold winter as the rest of us, Mexico may be beckoning. Book today and you can get 50 percent off rooms at the JW Marriott Cancun Resort or the CasaMagna Marriott Cancun Resort. You have to reserve by 11:59 tonight and use the promo code L9Z. Rates start at just $100 a night for travel through December 12, 2011.

Don’t leave home without our Seven Secrets for a More Romantic Trip.

– written by John Deiner

Thanks, Jack.

I’m talking about Jack LaLanne, the fitness pioneer who died Sunday at age 96. I have a few years to go before I hit that milestone (well, five decades), but you have to hand it to the guy: he knew how to keep it healthy. And he was an “exercise guru” before anyone really knew what that term meant.

I remember watching Jack on TV as a kid, doing jumping jacks in sync with the chiseled marvel. Today, I struggle to touch my toes. But adventure travelers should look to Jack for inspiration, because nothing can be more ruinous on a vacation than not being prepared for the rigors of a particular destination.

I’m thinking back to a trip I took eight years ago to the Galapagos. I still feel badly for the older travelers among the 29 explorers on our boat — by the end of a strenuous seven-day sail among the islands, three were so worn out they refused to leave the vessel. While the rest of us were looking at blue-footed boobies, they sat on deck chairs staring out to sea. I remember the wildlife expert assigned to the ship bemoaning the fact that they’d blown a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Fast-forward a few years to the Grand Canyon. For months, I’d been preparing for a rim-to-rim trek, working out five days a week, going for miles-long hikes around Washington D.C. and walking seven miles to work with a fully loaded backpack. It wasn’t enough. By the time I reached Phantom Ranch in the bowels of the canyon, my left knee was throbbing, my back aching. The 105-degree temperatures didn’t help. I can’t remember much about getting out of the canyon the next day, except that it was excruciating.

grand canyon


Two years later, I did it again, this time preparing twice as long and arriving with better hiking poles, knee braces and a more realistic attitude. Ok, I battled a stomach bug the night before, but I still made it down in good time — and pain-free.

Now I’m preparing to do it again. I just joined a gym, I’m hiking on the riverside trail that edges my backyard and I’ve taken those knee braces out of storage. All I have to do now is get reservations at Phantom Ranch, which is easier said than done, alas, but well worth the effort.

And Jack? Something tells me that at my age, Mr. LaLanne could have made the hike blindfolded and shoeless — and he sure could do a mean jumping jack.

– written by John Deiner

hotel gift cardYes, it’s time to panic. With only a few days before Christmas, you may be scratching your head and wondering how to fill in the blanks on your gift list.

Enter the lowly gift card. Purists say you might as well stick a wad of cash in an envelope and call it a day, while the boxes-and-bows set sniff at the idea of a gift that has about as much stage presence as a lump of coal. Still, there’s no denying that at this stage of the game, they may be the way to go. And they’re an even easier choice if the cards come with a little bonus — for either the recipient or you. Here are a few travel-related gift cards that fit the bill:

At BedandBreakfast.com, if you order a gift card of $100 or more through December 23, you get a bonus card and free FedEx overnight shipping. Spend $100 to $249 for a $25 bonus, and $250+ for a $75 bonus. If you want the B&B lover in your life to think you’re even more generous than you are (and who doesn’t?), Costco.com has $100 BedandBreakfast.com gift cards for $69.99 — and that includes shipping. Actually, that may make a good gift for yourself once you weather the holidays! Order by December 26.

The Best Western hotel chain has a similar deal: Purchase a $100 gift card through December 31 and you can choose from a list of bonuses, including a $10 Best Western Travel Card or $10 gift cards for Amazon.com, Home Depot or Walmart. If you need to put your in-laws in a hotel over the holidays or you’re planning a getaway to chill, Choice Hotels is offering a $50 Walmart gift card if you stay for three consecutive nights in select cities (including Anaheim, New Orleans and Orlando). Book before January 6 and complete travel by February 15. And members of the Marriott affinity program will be happy to know that through December 31, they can get 10 Marriott Rewards points for every dollar spent on gift cards.

What travelers can resist the gift of food? Chain restaurants may not be the way to get a real flavor of a place, but there’s no denying they’re convenient, and they usually dot the boulevards leading to airports. Many chains have bonuses attached to gift cards, including Macaroni Grill ($5 bonus for every $25 gift card purchased; valid for in-restaurant purchase before January 5) and Applebee’s ($10 bonus when you buy $50 in gift cards at participating locations through February 28).

– written by John Deiner

spa roomVisit Lake Atitlan in Guatemala (and you should, come to think of it), and you may find yourself in the tiny village of San Marcos. With only a few hundred residents, cheap food and labyrinthine pathways contoured by stone walls, fences and trees, it’s one of the more unexpected New Age communities you’re likely to encounter — and with an international population at that.

It’s here I realized a few years ago that one of the best ways to get the rub on a place is to, well, get a rubdown in the place. You can choose from any number of massage therapists, but I picked one on the outskirts, where the heavily traveled path wasn’t so well worn. I wrote my name next to a time on a piece of paper tacked to a post, then showed up at my self-determined appointment, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. Not to worry: With thunder rumbling in the distance, the masseuse showed up precisely on time at the front door, led me to a lovely little room overlooking a garden and chatted about life in Guatemala in broken English as she provided the best $20 massage money can buy.

I’d go back in a heartbeat, if I could find the place again.

Since then, I’ve eagerly jumped at any chance to spa out, though nothing has topped my Atitlan experience. There’ve been massages at Utah’s Sundance resort, as well as in Vegas, London and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I had a claustrophobic aromatherapy session in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia (think fragrant steam pumped into a phonebooth). I took the waters on a soaking tour of Saratoga Springs’ mineral baths in Upstate New York.

And now, a pedicure — in the middle of the ocean. During a recent spin on Royal Caribbean’s new Allure of the Seas, a loquacious charmer named Kim gave my weary toes some much-needed attention while she shared stories about her family back in Jamaica and recounted tales of working on a cruise ship. Bottom line: She misses her homeland, loves her floating workplace. While my toenails are still shiny from Kim’s efforts, the effects of the hot-rock leg massage and the cooling gels that followed it have, sadly, long disappeared.

(In case you’re wondering — and you are — I am not the only man to ever receive a pedicure at sea. Kim told me that about 20 percent of her clients are men. And when I asked her what sorts of pedial horrors she sees on a typical day, she just sort of shuddered and said, “I don’t want to think about it.”)

What’s next on my spa bucket list? I don’t know. I do know that you live and learn when you sit and soak, so I’m up for anything. Well, except for this:



To be honest, I’d rather talk to a human and learn something than have doctor fish nibbling dead skin off my big toe. But if you want to know more about this treatment, check out Seven Extreme Spa Treatments from Around the World.


– written by John Deiner