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Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

tulum ruins mexico


Population: 120.3 million

Currency: Mexican peso

Phrase to Know: Donde esta el baño? (Where is the bathroom?)

Fun Fact: Back in 1913 Mexico’s 34th president, Pedro Lascurain, served the world’s presidential shortest term — less than an hour.

We Recommend: Swim with whale sharks in Cancun. These massive but gentle creatures can weigh up to 20 tons.

12 Best Mexico Experiences

Have you been to Mexico? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

singers cuba el tanqueRecent changes from President Obama mean that it’s gotten significantly easier for Americans to visit Cuba, but they must still travel under one of 12 categories mandated by the U.S. government. A research trip or a visit to see family? No problem. A beach vacation or simple sightseeing? Those are a no-go. (For the full list of legal categories, see Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How.)

For those of us who aren’t journalists, professors or baseball players starring in an exhibition game, the easiest way to get to Cuba is with a company operating “people-to-people” tours, which fall under the umbrella of Educational Activities as far as the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is concerned. These trips focus on cultural exchange by putting American visitors directly in contact with the Cubans themselves — often in ways that would be difficult or even impossible to arrange on your own.

I recently traveled on such an itinerary with smarTours, which arranged numerous people-to-people activities during our four days in Havana. One highlight was a visit to El Tanque, where an abandoned water tank that used to service steam trains has been transformed into a bustling community center where neighborhood kids can learn painting, music, ceramics, dancing, theater and filmmaking. Several of the instructors gave us an impromptu musical performance before answering questions about the project, giving us insight into how economically challenged neighborhoods in Havana are supporting themselves from within.

5 Things You Need to Know About Traveling to Cuba Now

cuba photographer artist lorenzo lopez sheningThe interactive experiences continued throughout the trip. We ate lunch one day with a local magazine writer, the next with a retired pitcher who’d played for various Cuban baseball teams. We were treated to a private concert by Ele, a dynamic singing group, as well as a performance by incredibly talented children who were studying acrobatics and other circus skills as part of an after-school program called Angels of the Future. (One child swung from the ceiling; another contorted herself into painful-looking poses; still another stood barefoot on his friend’s head!) On our last day in Cuba, we were welcomed into the home of a local artist/photographer, who generously spent an hour answering our group’s questions about his life, his work and the future of Cuba.

While I loved strolling the streets of Old Havana and watching the Buena Vista Social Club perform at our hotel — activities I could’ve done easily on an independent trip — it was the people-to-people aspects of the itinerary that proved to be the most informative and rewarding. At this pivotal point in Cuban history, it was important to hear the voices of the people themselves, expressing their hopes and fears about what’s ahead. (“After the embargo” was a phrase we heard over and over again.)

Yes, group trips have their drawbacks, especially if you love wandering and prefer your schedule to be your own. And I support the right of all American travelers to visit Cuba independently when it’s legal to do so. But I hope that even after all the restrictions are gone, there will still be companies offering people-to-people itineraries in Cuba — because there are few better ways to understand and appreciate this unique culture.

Read About Other Travelers’ Experiences in Cuba

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

prague czech republic


Population: 10.6 million

Currency: Czech koruna

Phrase to Know: Dobry den (hello/good day)

Fun Fact: The Czech people consume more beer per capita than anyone else in the world, beating out the Irish in second place.

We Recommend: Join the locals in foraging for wild mushrooms, a popular hobby during the summer and fall in the Czech Republic.

10 Best Czech Republic Experiences

Have you been to the Czech Republic? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

This week’s travel puzzle is part of our ongoing Flag Friday series of challenges. Can you identify which nation the following flag belongs to?


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, May 18, 2015, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Nancy James, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Swaziland. Nancy has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

If you’ve ever had a travel-size bottle of shampoo or lotion leak all over the inside of your suitcase, you might be a good candidate to try a new brand of toiletries called Squeeze Pod. As the name suggests, these are stored in lightweight, single-use “pods” that can be squeezed to dispense each product. They’re designed not to leak until you break the seal; after use, you simply throw them away.

Check out this quick video about how they work:


I tried out a variety of Squeeze Pod products on a recent trip to Cuba. I found that the toiletries were pleasantly scented and did their job just fine. The only slight exception was the toilet odor eliminator, which didn’t entirely banish the smell I needed banished, but helped matters significantly by masking it with a clean, eucalyptus-tinted fragrance. All Squeeze Pod toiletries are vegan, sulfate-free, made in the U.S. and not tested on animals.

My only hitch was actually opening the pods. It’s important to break the seal by pulling the tab up toward the colored side of the packaging, not the other way. (The pods I tested didn’t have this labeled, but a spokesperson says the company is hoping to add clearer instructions in the future, as well as experimenting with different kinds of plastic that would only bend in one direction.) Pulling the tab the wrong way at first causes the seal not to break cleanly, leaving me spurting shampoo all over the shower wall on one occasion, and having to squeeze with a wrestler’s strength to eke the gel out through a too-tiny hole on several other occasions.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

squeeze pod variety packSqueeze Pod currently has five products for sale on its website: toilet odor eliminator, moisturizing lotion, hair gel, shave cream and hand purifier. Four of the other toiletries I was able to try are not currently for sale, but the company tells us they’re coming in June: shampoo, conditioner, facial cleanser and body wash. The cost ranges from $1.49 for a three-pack of hand purifier to $120 for a sampler of more than 225 pods of various types.

Want to try these toiletries out for yourself? We’re giving away a variety pack that includes two to three pods each of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, facial cleanser, toilet odor eliminator, shaving cream, hand purifier, moisturizing lotion and hair gel. Just leave us a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on May 31, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the variety pack. This giveaway is open only to residents of the lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

patagonia mountains argentina hiker


Population: 43 million

Currency: Argentine peso

Phrase to Know: No entiendo (I don’t understand)

Fun Fact: Buenos Aires is home to one of the world’s widest avenues; 9 de Julio Avenue stretches up to seven lanes in each direction.

We Recommend: Take a cruise at the edge of the world in Ushuaia, one of the planet’s southernmost cities. The nearby Beagle Channel is home to sea lions, albatrosses and other wildlife.

10 Best Argentina Experiences

Have you been to Argentina? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

havana cuba classic carI returned last week from a trip to Havana, Cuba, where I discovered a country on the verge of potentially drastic changes. Since December, when President Obama announced his intention to begin normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba, it’s become easier for Americans to visit Cuba legally — and interest in travel to the Caribbean’s largest island has skyrocketed.

Fortunately, there are numerous tour operators offering opportunities to American travelers. I was part of a small group on a people-to-people itinerary arranged by New York-based smarTours. A spokesman for the company tells us that “online inquiries and phone calls have more than doubled since the historic announcement in December 2014, and we are almost sold out of spots for Cuba for 2015.”

With further political and economic maneuverings on the way, including the removal of Cuba from the U.S. state terrorism list, it’s clear that the country is on the brink of tremendous change (much of it welcomed by the Cuban people). If you’re one of the thousands of Americans planning a trip in the coming months to see the country as it is today, here are five things you need to know.

Bring plenty of cash.
MasterCard has said it will allow its credit cards to be used in Cuba, but that’s not a reality yet because the banking system simply isn’t in place. This means you can’t withdraw money from ATMs either — so you’ll want to bring more cash than you expect to spend during your trip to allow for emergencies. (As a guideline, Cuba isn’t a bargain for travelers the way Southeast Asia is, but it’s generally more affordable than traveling in the U.S. or Europe.)

If you can get a good exchange rate — or you have some left over from a previous trip — consider bringing euros, Canadian dollars or British pounds instead of U.S. dollars. When changing money from the greenback to the Cuban Convertible Peso (known locally as the CUC, which rhymes with “fluke”), you’ll have to pay an additional 10 percent fee that doesn’t apply to other currencies. The good news is that you don’t have to pay the fee when converting CUCs back to dollars at the end of your trip; if you turn in 40 CUCs, you’ll receive $40 in return.

And speaking of CUCs…

Keep an eye on your change.
The CUC is one of two currencies used in Cuba. The other one, the peso, is worth significantly less than the CUC, and the bills look similar. Someone in our group was given a three-peso note as change instead of a three-CUC note, which meant that she got only about 11 cents back instead of three dollars.

Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How

Prepare to be out of touch.
You won’t be able to call or text from an American phone in Cuba — though you can use Wi-Fi when it’s available. Internet is offered at some hotels, but it tends to be both slow and pricey. (I paid about $7 an hour at my hotel, Havana’s Melia Cohiba.)

Eat at paladares.
Cuba’s privately owned restaurants, known as paladares, tend to offer better food than those run by the government. Expect to see a lot of rice and beans, as well as fish, Caribbean lobster and ropa vieja (shredded flank steak). Vegetables and fruits vary based on what’s in season; due to the U.S. embargo, Cubans have trouble importing certain foods, so the menus won’t be as varied as those you might see back home.

Keep small change on hand.
If you want a photo with one of the colorfully costumed locals brandishing flowers or cigars in the major squares around Old Havana, prepare to hand over a CUC or two for the privilege. More importantly, you’ll also want to have anywhere from 25 cents to a CUC to give to the attendants at many bathrooms around the country. Yes, paying to pee can be annoying — and you won’t be barred from the restroom if you don’t offer a coin or two — but in a country that’s struggling economically, what seems like chump change to us can make a big difference to the locals.

Cuba Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

cormorant fisherman yangshuo china


Population: 1.4 billion

Currency: Yuan renminbi

Phrase to Know: Xie xie (thank you — pronounced “shi-eh shi-eh”)

Fun Fact: The fortune cookie was not actually invented in China; it’s believed to have been created in the early 20th century in California. In fact, Wonton Food attempted to establish a fortune cookie factory in China in the 1990s, but had to close it because the cookies were considered too American.

We Recommend: Cuddle a panda at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. There’s an extra fee and you’ll have to make reservations in advance, but the experience is one-of-a-kind.

12 Best China Experiences

Have you been to China? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

trolle ljungby castle in sweden


Population: 9.7 million

Currency: Swedish krona

Phrase to Know: Pratar du engelska? (Do you speak English?)

Fun Fact: According to the country’s official website, Sweden.se, Stockholm collects more than two million pounds of food waste per month and turns it into fuel for the city’s buses and taxis.

We Recommend: Spend in a night in one of Sweden’s most unusual hotels, from modernist treehouses to an airplane-turned-hotel.

Photos: 11 Best Sweden Experiences

Have you been to Sweden? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

This week’s travel puzzle is part of our ongoing Flag Friday series of challenges. Can you identify which nation the following flag belongs to?


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, April 27, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Cayce L, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Sri Lanka. Cayce has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter