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hong kongRead up on the latest from around the travel world with our weekly roundup.

10 Places It’s Cheaper to Fly to in 2016
If you’re dreaming of a trip to Hong Kong this year, you’re in luck — that city tops Kayak’s list of the top travel destinations for airfare savings in 2016, reports Time. It’s 26 percent cheaper to fly there this year than it was last year. Also on the list: Chicago, Beijing, Bangkok and Athens, among others.

The “Boring” Cities Worth a Second Look
Eric Weiner at BBC Travel argues that the cities we often think of as “boring” — such as Geneva, Switzerland and Cleveland, Ohio — actually have a lot to recommend them. You go in with no expectations, so you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised. And boring places have their own charm that flashier places don’t: “When you relinquish the spectacular, you are rewarded with the quieter joy of the ordinary,” writes Weiner.

No Vacation Nation: 41% of Americans Didn’t Take a Day off in 2015
Well, this is depressing. Nearly 41 percent of U.S. respondents to a recent poll went all of 2015 without taking a single vacation day, reports Skift, and another 17 percent took fewer than five days off. Clearly, more Americans need to read that survey that says travel makes us happier.

Travel Broadens the Mind, But Can It Alter the Brain?
The Guardian looks at the benefits of studying or living abroad, which include being more creative, open-minded, independent and emotionally stable. The article also notes that coping with the challenges of travel keeps our minds sharp. (We always knew travelers were smarter…)

The Loophole That Could Save You Money on the Cost of a Flight
The U.K.’s Daily Mail has unearthed an interesting tip for saving money on airfare. If you’re planning to take internal flights within a foreign country, you’ll sometimes pay less if you purchase those flights while you’re in that country — or if you pretend to be from that country when you book.

Department of Transportation: Pilots Are Forgetting How to Fly Manually
Nervous fliers should probably give this article a miss. Popular Mechanics reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation is concerned that an over-reliance on automation has made modern-day pilots less proficient in manual flying — and more likely to make errors in situations that demand it.

Lufthansa Will Change How You Check Bags in 2016
For once, some good airline news! Conde Nast Traveler reports that Lufthansa will be introducing digital tags for checked bags this year, which will allow the airline to track the location of your suitcase and keep you notified via an app. In case of delays, you can tell the app where you want your bag delivered once it arrives.

Big Changes Coming for American’s Reward Program
Aaaaannd now we’re back to lousy airline news. The Dallas Morning News alerts AAdvantage members about coming changes to American Airlines’ rewards program, which include more limited dates for booking off-peak tickets, more miles required to book trips in some markets, and a new way of earning miles based on price paid instead of miles traveled.

For your visual eye candy of the week, we travel to Ireland with this dreamy, cinematic video:


Photos: 12 Best Ireland Experiences
10 Things Not to Do When Checking a Bag

— written by Sarah Schlichter

visually impaired woman and companionWhat does travel look like without sightseeing? Fortunately for blind or visually impaired travelers, there’s a tour company out there to help them — and sighted travelers — find out.

Traveleyes, founded in 2004 by a blind man who loves to travel, offers small-group trips to a wide array of destinations around the world, including Australia, Morocco, Italy, Bulgaria and Peru. What makes the company special is that the trips pair blind travelers with sighted companions who serve as guides, describing the scenes in front of them and assisting them with navigation through restaurants and shops. In exchange, sighted travelers save up to 50 percent off the cost of the trip and get the satisfaction of helping their new friends discover the world.

To make the experience as rich as possible for everyone, itineraries emphasize multisensory activities such as learning the tango in Argentina, riding a camel in Morocco and tasting wine in Rome. This isn’t just for the benefit of blind travelers. On the Traveleyes website, the company notes that this is a benefit for sighted travelers as well: “Seeing is only part of the experience. As a sighted traveller, you’ll be guided on how to explore the world through all of your other senses. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ve been missing out on.”

No experience is necessary for sighted travelers — the company provides pre-trip information as well as training on the first day to help you learn how to guide. Blind and sighted travelers will be partnered with different companions each day throughout the trip so everyone can get to know each other.

Rates for sighted travelers start at just $283 per person, while rates for blind travelers start at $552 per person. Rates do not include flights or transfers unless you’re traveling from the U.K.

Disabled Travel Tips
Part-Time Voluntourism: How to Give Back During a Trip

Would you try a trip with Traveleyes?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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:

asian capital cities


Enter your list of countries in the comments below. You have until Monday, January 18, 2016, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday 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 Lizzy Spencer, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.

asian capital cities


— created by Sarah Schlichter

airport plane sunsetCatch up on what you may have missed this week with this roundup of our favorite travel stories.

52 Places to Go in 2016
The New York Times kicks us off with an inspiring collection of destinations to visit in the coming year, complete with droolworthy photos and videos. Suggestions include familiar favorites (such as Dublin, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising) and up-and-comers (such as Garzon, a new wine region in Uruguay).

Inside One of the World’s Biggest Airline Food Factories
CNN visits the Emirates Flight Catering facility in Dubai, which provides 55 million meals a year for hungry fliers. It’s fascinating to learn the scale of the operations here — for example, the facility cleans three million items of equipment every single day. (Now that’s a lot of dishes!)

Airports Shutting Terminals at Night in Effort to Evict Homeless
Conde Nast Traveler examines a recent push by U.S. airports to force out homeless people by shutting down public, pre-security areas overnight. Especially this time of year, many homeless people find airports a warm, clean and safe place to sleep, and some “fear the alternative: a city shelter that is often dirty and dangerous.” New York’s LaGuardia and Washington D.C.’s Reagan are among the airports cracking down.

Old Driver’s License? You Can Still Fly for Two More Years
There’s been a lot of anxiety lately about the new Real ID Act, which sets minimum security standards for driver’s licenses and other identification cards — standards that are not currently met by some states. Fortunately, the Associated Press reports that there will be at least a two-year reprieve before travelers in non-compliant states will have to use an alternative form of ID instead of their driver’s license when flying within the U.S.

Irish Hotel Helps a Lost Toy Bunny Find Its Way Home
From the “Awwww” department comes this Travel + Leisure story of a stuffed animal left behind at the Adare Manor Hotel in Ireland. The hotel staff took good care of the toy, sharing photos on the property’s Facebook page of the bunny taking afternoon tea and getting a massage while it waited to be reclaimed by its young owner. Adorbs!

Our favorite travel video of the week is an upbeat journey around the cities, beaches, deserts and mountains of Morocco. (We love the soundtrack.)


Photos: 11 Best Morocco Experiences

— written by Sarah Schlichter

travel photos in hands“Wow, none of this looks familiar at all,” I told my travel companion as we walked through downtown Oslo, Norway, on a recent trip. “I have no idea if I was ever in this neighborhood. No, wait — I think I remember that fountain!”

It had been 12 years since my first and only time in Oslo, a quick two-day stay in the midst of a longer European trip. My memories of the place had come down to a few hazy impressions — the striking cleanliness of the city, a few statues in Vigeland Park, the facade of the Royal Palace on a gray day. But when I returned to Oslo after so long away, I was surprised by how much it felt like I was visiting for the first time.

The same happened on a different trip to Barcelona, also after a dozen-year gap. Yes, the famous Gothic cathedral looked familiar, as did the bustling Rambla promenade, but it was the places between major landmarks that seemed to have slipped away over the years — the shops and squares and side streets, the connecting fabric of the city, the bits that fill the gaps between the highlights that we usually remember from a trip.

As I wandered like a wide-eyed newcomer around Barcelona, I thought back to a conversation I once had with a friend about how little we remember about the books we’ve read. “Have I even really read the book if I can only remember one good line or an important plot point?” she asked me. “What if all I can recall is that I liked a book, even if I don’t know why anymore?”

I discovered this year that the same goes for travel. Unless you visit a place regularly — the way you might reread a favorite book — only your most powerful memories of it seem to stand the test of time. Psychologist Daniel L. Schacter labeled this transience one of the “deadly sins of memory,” according to the PsyBlog.

So why do we spend thousands of dollars to travel when all that remains of a trip a few years later will be some pretty photos and a misty impression of a place (“So beautiful” or “Ugh, I got violently ill there!”)?

To me, the answer is that the memories I do retain from my travels are some of my most visceral and personal — my first sight of the Duomo in Florence (which literally took my breath away), the warm smile from a woman in Greenland in response to my halting attempt to say “thank you” in her language, the rosy color of the Moroccan sand dunes at sunrise. I don’t believe my most important travel memories will ever fade.

As for the rest, in many ways traveling is about living richly in the moment. Even if some of those moments may someday slip away, maybe it’s enough that we lived them at all.

Return Trips: Why the Second Time’s a Charm
Sharing Your Travel Photos and Experiences

— written by Sarah Schlichter

This Friday’s challenge is a photo of an unidentified place somewhere in the world. Can you tell us where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Tuesday to see if you were right!

world destination


Hint: This castle, which dates back to the 1600s, is one of only 12 original castles remaining in its home country.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, January 11, 2016, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com prize. 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 Steve Grey, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Matsue Castle in Japan. Steve has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

See All “Where in the World?” Challenges

— written by Sarah Schlichter

After taking a few weeks off for the holidays, we’re back with another round-up of all the travel news you need to know.

uber steering wheelUber Is Thinking of Getting into the Travel Business
Uber has already revolutionized the way many of us travel, and the company isn’t done yet, judging by a recent patent. Business Insider explains how a new feature called “Uber Travel” would allow the company to find you flights and accommodations, as well as recommend the best time to call an Uber based on when you’re scheduled to land at an airport.

Hilton Wants You to Pay $50 for What?
As if we needed more fees in our life! Time reports that Hilton is testing out a new program that charges a $50 fee for any cancellation, even if it’s far in advance of your stay. (Wait till the day of arrival and you’ll pay for a full night.) The charge is designed to discourage travelers from using websites and apps that hunt for price drops and rebook them at a lower rate.

Hidden Hotel Fees

Zika: Coming to America Through Mosquitoes, Travel and Sex
In other bad news, there’s a new virus spreading around the world, according to Forbes. Known as zika, the illness is related to yellow fever and dengue, and was first discovered in Uganda. These days it’s heading northward from Brazil, transmitted mainly via mosquitoes. (Sexual transmission is suspected but not proven.) The best prevention method is to use mosquito nets and bug spray when traveling in affected areas.

The TSA May Now Deny You the Right to a Pat-Down
Those of us who feel uncomfortable with the TSA’s full-body scanners have always had the option of choosing a pat-down by a security officer instead — until now. The Department of Homeland Security released a statement last month giving the TSA the right to make a full-body scan mandatory “as warranted by security considerations,” reports Frommer’s.

Who Are the World’s Safest Airlines for 2016?
Nervous fliers won’t want to miss this annual list from AirlineRatings.com, which highlights the 20 safest airlines in the world. And the winner is … Australia-based Qantas, which tops the charts for the third year in a row. Several U.S. airlines made the grade, including American, Alaska, Hawaiian and United.

These 38 Airlines Have the Lowest Airline Safety Ratings
And here’s the counterpoint: the worst-rated carriers on AirlineRatings.com, as rounded up by Travel + Leisure. The good news is that you’ve probably never heard of any of these airlines, so you’re not too likely to fly them. (TransNusa? Daallo Airlines? Anyone?!)

Fear of Flying

We wrap up this week’s edition with a short film from western Mongolia, which captures the day-to-day life of the nomadic Kazakh people, including the fascinating way they train eagles to hunt for game.


— written by Sarah Schlichter

If you’re looking for a lightweight carry-on that you could also bring on a hike or take to the gym, consider the new High Sierra 22″ Duffel Backpack. As the name suggests, you can wear it on your back or carry it over your shoulder, making it a versatile option for various types of trips. The bag retails for $89.99.

We took the bag on a couple of quick holiday trips to test out its features — and here’s what we found.

high sierra 22 inch duffel backpack


The Good
It’s got plenty of compartments: Two side-loading compartments are ideal for stowing shoes separately from clothes, and you can tuck your phone or glasses case into the fleece-lined front pocket. An internal mesh pocket can hold dirty laundry. One caveat: It can be awkward to pack around items in the side compartments, which jut into the main section of the bag.

You can carry it multiple ways: You can grab the bag via sturdy handles on either side, or use the two straps on top to wear it as a backpack. You can also Velcro the top straps together to put the bag over your shoulder.

It’s lightweight and easy to stow: The bag weighs less than two pounds and, because it doesn’t have wheels or a rigid internal structure, is easy to stuff into the overhead compartment of a plane.

It’s water-resistant: When we poured water on the outside of the bag, the liquid immediately beaded up and ran off the side. The bag isn’t fully waterproof, so if you’re in a downpour it’ll eventually soak through, but your stuff should be protected well enough in light rain.

high sierra 22 inch duffel backpack


The Bad
It could use a longer shoulder strap: The company suggests that you can combine the grab handles into a single cross-body shoulder strap, but they’re not quite long enough to make this comfortable, especially for taller and/or larger travelers. A longer clip-on shoulder strap would have been a nice touch.

It doesn’t have wheels: If you’ve stuffed the bag full, it could get heavy during long treks between airport terminals. (Note that High Sierra offers a number of wheeled duffel bags and backpacks if you’re seeking those alternatives.)

It might be too big to carry on: The bag measures 22 x 14 x 12 inches, which exceeds some airlines’ carry-on restrictions. (American Airlines, for instance, limits carry-ons to a total of 45 inches, or 22 x 14 x 9.) That said, because the bag is so soft and flexible, you could easily squeeze it into the airline’s sizer if it’s not completely full.

There’s only one color: The bag is a new product and so far is only available in black with bright yellow-green trim.

Want to give this bag a try? We’re giving away our gently used black High Sierra 22″ Duffel Backpack! Just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, January 25, 2016. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the bag. 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.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Susan David. Congratulations!

We received a free sample of this bag from High Sierra for the purpose of reviewing it and giving it away to a reader. All products are accepted with the understanding that we will review them in a way that honestly reflects our experience — good, bad or indifferent.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Travelers looking to explore the Yangtze River in China or the Danube in Europe may have already heard of Viking River Cruises, which offers dozens of boats plying various rivers around the globe. But the company has recently expanded to include larger ocean-going cruise ships, with the first one launching earlier this year.

Viking Star is the first of three identical, 930-passenger ships; the other two, Viking Sea and Viking Sky, will debut within the next two years. I recently sailed aboard Viking Star from Barcelona to Rome to see how well the experience might suit independent travelers. Read on to learn what I loved about the cruise — as well as a few drawbacks.

viking star cruise ship


1. Unique Itineraries
Viking Star sails all over Europe as well as to the Caribbean and the East Coast of the U.S., and it’s hard not to be enticed by some of the less-traveled ports the ship visits. The 14-night Ancient Empires & Holy Lands sailing, for instance, starts in Rome and includes calls in Israel (Haifa and Jerusalem) and Turkey (Ephesus and Istanbul) as well as Naples and Athens. Or head north to follow “In the Wake of the Vikings,” a journey that starts in Bergen, Norway, and passes through Scotland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland en route to Montreal. The Caribbean itineraries start in Puerto Rico instead of Florida, minimizing days at sea and allowing passengers to explore islands like Tortola, Guadeloupe and Antigua.

2. (Almost) Everything Is Included
On most mainstream cruise lines you’ll pay extra for things like onboard Wi-Fi, dinner in an alternative restaurant, and beer/wine with meals — all of which are included on Viking Star. There’s always one free shore excursion in each port as well (typically an introductory bus or walking tour). Another nice perk? All cabins have balconies.

Note that a few things do cost extra, including spa treatments, gratuities for the crew, some shore excursions, and premium cocktails, wines and spirits.

3. Tasteful Ambience
If your vision of cruise ships includes cheesy, over-the-top decor and crowded buffets, rest assured; as befits its Scandinavian sensibility, Viking Star feels elegant and understated. My favorite spots included the quiet Explorers’ Lounge, where you can curl up on a couch with a book from the well-stocked bookshelves, and the Nordic spa, where you can cool off in a Snow Grotto between trips to the sauna or hot tub.

viking star explorers lounge


4. Longer Days in Port
On my Mediterranean sailing, Viking Star overnighted in two different ports (Rome and Barcelona), and stayed late in most others; passengers didn’t have to be back onboard until 8 to 10 p.m. — unusually late for the cruise industry. That meant we had at least 12 hours to explore each day, giving us the option to take multiple excursions or to eat both lunch and dinner ashore if we wanted to experience the local cuisine.

5. Enrichment and Immersion
Daily lectures (such as “The Restoration of the Sistine Chapel: What Went Wrong and Why?”) and informational port talks help passengers get to know each destination before visiting, and many of the shore excursions go beyond the usual major sightseeing attractions. For example, one offering in Rome takes travelers to the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, which predates the rise of the Roman Empire. During a call in Livorno, Italy, you can take a cooking class in a medieval Tuscan castle or meet working artisans in Florence. Viking also offers a Kitchen Table experience that involves shopping with the ship’s chef at a market in port and then working with him to prepare local specialties (such as Spanish tapas).

viking star infinity pool hot tub


Caveats
Despite all of these benefits, there are a few important caveats to note about sailing with Viking Ocean Cruises. Most importantly, despite the overnights and longer days in port, these itineraries have the same major drawback as any other cruise, particularly in Europe: not enough time. Spending a single day in a city like Florence or Jerusalem will give you no more than a taste — especially in places where the port is a one- or two-hour bus ride from the city you actually intend to see. To avoid frustration, consider your cruise a sampler that will help you figure out which cities are worth a longer visit in the future.

Also, while the included shore excursions are a nice perk, independent travelers who chafe at the thought of shuffling along with 35 other tourists behind a guide holding up a Viking sign should book their own private tour (for a more personalized experience) or simply go it alone.

Cruises start at about $2,000 per person (not including airfare). Learn more at VikingCruises.com.

Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: I traveled as a guest of Viking Ocean Cruises, with the understanding that I would cover the trip in a way that honestly reflected my experience — good, bad or indifferent. Along with the cruise itself, Viking also included some complimentary extras to allow me to experience various aspects of its onboard experience. You can read our full editorial disclosure on our About Us page.

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, December 21, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday 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 Pat, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Belarus. Pat has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter