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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

child pool africaIn this month’s featured review, reader Barbara Helveston discovers that even a 4-year-old can appreciate Africa’s many natural wonders. “After a couple of days, we boarded an eight-hour flight to Johannesburg, a quick overnight and a short flight to Victoria Falls where we promptly fell in love with everything Africa,” she writes. “We stayed at the Zambezi River Lodge … a lodge hotel with all the amenities situated on the Zambezi River, complete with warthogs, meerkats and a local hippo named Sebastian!”

Read the rest of Barbara’s review here: African Adventure Extraordinaire. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag.

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

colmar france at night


Population: 66 million

Currency: Euro

Phrase to Know: S’il vous plait (please)

Fun Fact: When the Nazis occupied Paris during WWII, the French resistance cut the cables of the elevators in the Eiffel Tower so that Hitler would have to climb the stairs (some 1,500 of them!) if he wanted to get to the top.

We Recommend: Capture the City of Lights with a Paris photography tour.

12 Best France Experiences

Have you been to France? 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, June 29, 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 Danny Gonzalez, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from French Polynesia. Danny has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

On my last trip, I traveled nearly to the ends of the earth.

My destination was Svalbard, a remote cluster of islands located approximately halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It’s a land where polar bears and reindeer roam, and where the only ways to get around are by air, sea, snowmobile or dog sled.

svalbard polar bear


I traveled with polar specialist Quark Expeditions, which offers small-ship cruises in Antarctica, Greenland, northern Canada, Norway, Iceland and even the North Pole. My itinerary was the “Introduction to Spitsbergen,” a Svalbard cruise that sails roundtrip from Longyearbyen with a focus on spotting polar bears, walruses and other Arctic wildlife.

Over eight nights aboard Sea Adventurer, Quark’s oldest vessel, I discovered a few of the qualities that make this itinerary special — plus a couple of little things that didn’t quite live up to expectations.

HITS
Wildlife: Every part of a Svalbard cruise is designed to get passengers as close to the wildlife as possible. When a whale surfaces or a polar bear is spotted in the pack ice, the ship veers off course to get a better look. For more intimate encounters, smaller Zodiac boats bring passengers right up to the shoreline for views of nesting puffins or grazing reindeer. In the most incredible moments, the animals came to us — as when a polar bear padded directly across the ice to within about 50 feet of our ship, lifting its sensitive nose to scent us every step of the way. The wildlife is the number one reason that most people book a Svalbard cruise, and it didn’t disappoint.

svalbard reindeer


Staff: Led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable expedition team, Sea Adventurer’s crew kept us safe, well fed and well informed. Naturalist guides piloted the Zodiacs and offered insight about the animals and birds we saw along the way. When viewing wildlife on deck, they helped passengers spot the animals (which were often quite far away and difficult to see, even with binoculars) and positioned the ship’s telescopes to give us a better glimpse. In the evenings they gave talks on everything from walruses to glacial geology.

Beyond the expedition team, the rest of the crew greeted us with smiles and provided efficient service in the dining room, bar and cabins.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

Food: Sea Adventurer may not be a massive cruise ship with food around the clock, but we certainly never went hungry. From early-morning munchies in the lounge to tempting desserts at both lunch and dinner, the food aboard the ship was plentiful and usually delicious (if not always particularly healthy). The highlight was an Arctic barbecue, held on deck one mild evening when the ship was anchored in a fjord. Dining alfresco on burgers, ribs and corn on the cob with a stunning view of a glacier? Yes, please.

MISSES
Shore Landings: One of our scheduled hiking outings was called off because we spotted a polar bear on shore — obviously not a creature we wanted to encounter on foot! Another landing spot was inaccessible due to ice. In the end, we boarded on Monday afternoon and didn’t set foot on land again until Friday afternoon. That didn’t mean we were twiddling our thumbs in our cabins — Quark filled our days with Zodiac cruises (including some amazing close-up viewing of the polar bear that would have been such a danger to us on land) and nature lectures. Fortunately, we did end up with four landings over the last three days of the cruise, all of which were excellent. But passengers on any Svalbard cruise should keep in mind that all landings are subject to the whims of weather and wildlife.

svalbard hike


Staying in Touch: While Internet access was available on the ship (via Wi-Fi and two computers in the Internet cafe), it often didn’t work in the remote regions where we were cruising. Even when you could get a signal, it was extremely slow and might boot you off between emails. Considering the lofty prices ($20 for 10 MB of data, $50 for 30 MB and $130 for 100 MB) and the fact that the access cards are nonrefundable, most passengers simply didn’t bother.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

Are you interested in traveling to Svalbard?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

goats in tree morocco


To enter, drop your wittiest one-liner (or two-liner, or three-liner…) in the comments by Sunday night, June 28, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll contact the winner and reveal our favorite caption next week. Remember, keep it clean; please be sure to abide by our community guidelines when commenting.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Bryan Harris, who submitted our favorite caption: “Mike? Are you sure you saw a snake?” Bryan has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

atacama desert chile


Population: 17.4 million

Currency: Chilean peso

Phrase to Know: Habla ingles? (Do you speak English?)

Fun Fact: Chile was the final country in the Western Hemisphere to make divorce legal (back in 2004). The divorce rate here is still extremely low — just 3 percent, as compared to 53 percent in the U.S., according to Business Insider.

We Recommend: Head to the small town of Curarrehue, where you can weave with local Mapuche women.

10 Best Chile Experiences

Have you been to Chile? 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.

koutoubia mosque marrakesh


Population: 33 million

Currency: Moroccan dirham

Phrase to Know: Shukran (thank you)

Fun Fact: Numerous films have been shot (at least in part) in Morocco, including “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Gladiator,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Black Hawk Down.”

We Recommend: Visit Fez to enjoy foodie experiences such as cooking tagine with a local family or visiting an artisan fromagerie to taste organic cheeses.

11 Best Morocco Experiences

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

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every so often I wander over to Vimeo, a video-sharing site that’s one of my favorite sources for travel inspiration. I know that every time I visit I’ll find myself drooling over films from exotic locations around the world.

One of my latest discoveries is this poignant look at Myanmar (Burma), which captures fishermen rowing their boats, children at play and other scenes of everyday life:



Next we head to Istanbul, where this filmmaker lovingly zooms in on the city’s mosques, mosaics and minarets:



Ever wondered what it might be like to swim with jellyfish? You can try it at Palau’s Jellyfish Lake, where the creatures do sting, but not powerfully enough to harm humans. The resulting footage is mesmerizing:



Finally, here’s an intriguing look at Egypt from a filmmaker who wanted to counter some of the negative media coverage the Middle East’s gotten over the past few years:



Okay, I’m ready to plan my next trip. How about you?

4 Travel Videos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

— written by Sarah Schlichter

credit cards money We’ve all tried to dodge the airlines’ ever-present fees at least once or twice — maybe you’ve overstuffed your carry-on so you didn’t have to check a bag, or packed your own headphones so you didn’t need to shell out five bucks for the ones offered in flight. But a British student recently went far beyond that, legally changing his name because it was less expensive than paying Ryanair’s fee to correct a booking error.

The Guardian reports that Adam Armstrong made the change after his girlfriend’s stepfather booked him a flight to Ibiza with the wrong surname. (“Her stepdad got my name from Facebook but I had put it as Adam West as a joke, because he was the actor who played Batman on TV,” Armstrong told the Guardian.) Ryanair wanted 220 GBP (about $337 USD) in administrative fees to change the name on the booking to match the one on Armstrong’s passport.

Armstrong balked at the cost, calling it “completely ridiculous,” and instead decided to change his name legally (at no charge) and expedite a new passport for 103 GBP (about $158 USD). Gotta admire his creativity!

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

Ryanair is hardly the only airline to charge steep fees for making changes to an existing booking. Delta charges anywhere from $200 to $450, depending on where you’re flying; American quotes a range of fees from $200 to $750(!) for any “voluntary change to ticket made prior to day of travel.” One notable exception: Southwest, which does charge any applicable fare difference for a rebooking but does not assess a separate administrative change fee.

Most airlines, including Ryanair, will give you a 24-hour grace period to correct errors.

In a statement published by the Guardian, Ryanair explains, “A name change fee is charged in order to discourage and prevent unauthorised online travel agents from ‘screenscraping’ Ryanair’s cheapest fares and reselling them on to unwitting consumers at hugely inflated costs.'”

10 Ways Air Travel Has Gone Downhill

Do you think the airlines’ change fees are fair? Share your thoughts in the comments.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

kilkenny castle ireland


Population: 4.8 million

Currency: Euro

Phrase to Know: Slainte (cheers — a toast)

Fun Fact: A popular legend about St. Patrick, the country’s patron saint, is that he banished snakes from Ireland back in the fifth century. However, researchers at the National Museum of Ireland have pooh-poohed this legend because there is no fossil evidence that snakes ever lived in Ireland in the first place.

We Recommend: Channel your inner royal by spending the night in a castle.

12 Best Ireland Experiences

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

— written by Sarah Schlichter