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souvenirs statue of libertyRacks of $5 T-shirts, Eiffel Tower boxer shorts, tacky mugs and other tchotchkes have given souvenirs a bad name, but most travelers still like to bring home some meaningful memento from a trip. It just takes a little hunting sometimes.

Most of my own favorite souvenirs are art objects, like a cerulean-colored clay pot made in Santa Fe and a delicately drawn painting purchased directly from the artist in Morocco. I also enjoy supporting local independent bookstores by picking up a novel or poetry anthology to read on the plane ride home.

Here at IndependentTraveler.com, we recently asked our Facebook readers to fill in the blank: “The best souvenir I’ve ever brought home is _________.”

We’d like to try out Nancy Stanley’s item, a “hand-carved chess set from Belarus.” Rugs seemed popular with our readers; Chris Hagen Straub brought one home from India, while Deborah Fortuna snagged one in Morocco. Meanwhile, Joshua Senzer went for the bling: “Colombian emeralds.”

Ron Buckles shared an experience from a trip to Europe: “While visiting Karlstejn (Czech Republic) there was an antique stop in the village. Hidden in a corner was an old cigar box with the Karlstejn Castle pictured on it. Price was $3.” A steal!

Some of our other readers brought home less tangible items. “I rarely buy any kind of souvenir,” wrote Jo Kula. “I usually keep bus tickets, train tickets and such. But I really love my pictures and putting them in frames.”

Trish Sayers keeps it simple — “great memories” — while Colleen R Costello likes to come home with “new friends and invitations that frequently lead to future trips.”

But it’s tough to top Carolyn Spencer Brown’s response: “My husband! We met while both traveling solo. In Naples!”

Souvenirs don’t get much better than that.

What’s the best thing you’ve brought home from your travels?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two “true blue” experiences.

Would you rather…

… explore the historic medina of Chefchaouen, Morocco, or …

chefchaouen morocco medina blue



… bathe in the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, Iceland?

blue lagoon reykjavik


The mountain village of Chefchaouen, in northeastern Morocco, is famous for its picture-perfect blue architecture. Meanwhile, the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik, fed with hot mineral water from beneath the earth’s surface, is one of Iceland’s most famous attractions.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

hotel front deskI usually love planning trips — second only to taking them! — but a few years ago, as I tried to hammer out a driving itinerary around the South Island of New Zealand, I found myself feeling unexpectedly stressed out. The problem: figuring out how long to spend in each place.

Would one night in Queenstown be enough, or should I tack on another? After driving three or four hours between stops, should we linger a little longer in each place before tackling the next chunk of our itinerary? Would we have enough time to detour through the Catlins in the far south?

Photos: 13 Best New Zealand Experiences

Around in circles I went, even though a few friends who’d been to New Zealand advised me not to worry about nailing down an itinerary. “You don’t need to book hotels in advance,” one said. “There are plenty of motels. Just do what you want during the day and find a place to stay wherever you happen to be.”

Her advice made perfect sense — but I didn’t take it. Here are three reasons why:

1. I’m a hopeless planner. While the idea of landing in a new place with no itinerary or bookings sounds like heaven to some travelers, it’s terrifying to me. I don’t have to plan out my day hour by hour, but the basics — activities I’m interested in, where I’ll lay my head — are a must.

2. Booking early gives me time to compare prices and read reviews. I’ve been burned in the past by last-second hotel choices that cost more than I wanted to pay or didn’t live up to my normal standards of service and cleanliness.

3. When I arrive in a new place, I want to spend my time exploring and doing things — not driving around searching for hotels that don’t look too sketchy.

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In the end, I compromised. I booked all my hotels before my trip, but made sure I would be able to cancel them without penalty if our itinerary changed. Fortunately, all my exhaustive research paid off. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

How do you feel about booking hotels in advance? Vote in our poll or leave a comment below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two streets for strolling.

Would you rather…

… wander down this quiet cobblestone street in the Tuscan village of Sorano, Italy, or …

sorano italy tuscany flowers lane



… explore the vibrant city streets of Osaka, Japan?

osaka japan night street


Are you energized by bustling cities, or would you rather lose yourself in a quiet village? Sorano is one of Italy’s many medieval hill towns, home to several picturesque churches as well as a castle, Fortezza Orsini. Meanwhile, Osaka is Japan’s third largest city, boasting endless shops, major museums (including the National Museum of Art) and the country’s oldest Buddhist temple, Shitennoji.

11 Best Italy Experiences
12 Best Japan Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two spectacular religious landmarks.

Would you rather…

… tour the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, or …

hagia sophia istanbul



… wander the ancient temples of Angkor, Cambodia?

ta prohm angkor cambodia


No matter your own spiritual leanings, religious buildings such as cathedrals, temples and mosques are some of the world’s most spectacular buildings. As we write in our Istanbul travel guide, the Hagia Sophia was “once a church, then a mosque, [and] was made into a museum in 1935 after the secular Turkish Republic was founded.” Angkor, Cambodia, is home to a number of Hindu and Buddhist Temples dating back to the Khmer Empire (9th – 15th centuries).

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Here’s something fun to kick off your weekend. It’s a travel-themed picture puzzle. You just have to tie the photos together to make words. For example, a photo of an eye, combined with a photo of a full glass of water would be eye + full = Eiffel. Get it? (For another example, check out last week’s puzzle.)

This week’s puzzle is two words and represents a bucket list destination for many travelers.

Once you think you know the answer, post it below. You have until Monday, February 24, 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 travel mug. 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 Janette Lawler, who correctly guessed that the pictogram spelled “Galapagos Islands.” Janette has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.


– written and created by Sarah Schlichter

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!

svartifoss waterfall icelandIn this month’s featured review, reader Shannon Colman names five places any visitor to Iceland should check out — as well as one to skip. On her must-see list is a waterfall in Skaftafell National Park: “The most spectacular thing about Svartifoss is the structure of the basalt columns behind the water — their rigidness evokes a sense of formality and order,” wrote Shannon. “I described them as resembling the pipes on an organ at a funeral, sitting in position, ready to release their morbid tones.”

Read the rest of Shannon’s review here: 5 Must-Dos in Iceland. Shannon has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

google glass virgin atlanticThe travel industry doesn’t tend to win many kudos for its customer service (see our Airlines Behaving Badly series for evidence), but one airline is hoping to change that through the introduction of cutting-edge technology.

Virgin Atlantic announced yesterday that staff members in its Upper Class Wing at London‘s Heathrow Airport will be using Google Glass — a wearable mini-computer that’s not yet broadly available to the public — to check in passengers and perform other personalized customer service tasks. This includes things like giving flight status updates, translating information in foreign languages and providing a weather forecast for the passenger’s destination.

For now, Virgin Atlantic’s economy-class passengers are out of luck; the pilot test of this program affects only those in the Upper Class cabin. The test will go on for six weeks, with the possibility of expansion in the future. Eventually the technology could also be used to identify passengers’ inflight preferences (such as special dietary needs or preferred drinks).

Does Your Flight Attendant Hate You?

Would you find it appealing to be greeted with such personalized service at the airport? Let us know in the comments below.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two warm-weather adventures.

Would you rather…

… hike to a secret waterfall in Kauai, Hawaii, or …

kauai waterfall



… go snorkeling in Tahiti?

snorkel snorkeling tahiti


Here in the Northeast, we’re sick of ice and snow — which is why we chose two warm-weather experiences for this week. The first picture captures one of the many waterfalls on the Hawaiian isle of Kauai; known as the Garden Island, it’s a haven for hikers and nature lovers. In the second photo are snorkelers enjoying the unspoiled undersea landscape off the coast of Tahiti.

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

tripadvisor flightsWhat’s most important to you when booking a flight — price? Schedule? Number of connections? Legroom? The in-flight experience? For many travelers, the answer is “all of those things.” And airfare booking sites are responding.

Today TripAdvisor introduced a new version of its flight search engine that includes information such as legroom ratings (tight, average or spacious), whether seats with extra space are available for purchase, the cost of a first checked bag, and whether your seat has a personal TV screen and/or power outlet.

The default search results are sorted by lowest price, but you can also choose to show only nonstop options, to “avoid early flights” (before 8 a.m.) or to see the flights offering the “best value.” It’s not immediately clear what qualifies a flight for “best value” status. In one search, the site gave me a happy medium between an expensive nonstop flight and a cheaper but less convenient option with two layovers. In another, it suggested a nonstop flight that cost about $300 more than the cheapest, multi-leg flight (about a 25 percent increase in price).

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These offerings are similar to those on other sites like Routehappy.com — which assigns flights a Happiness Score based on entertainment options, seat configuration, trip length and other factors — and Hipmunk.com, whose Agony Index sorts flights by a combination of price, length and number of layovers.

What’s cool about TripAdvisor’s flight search is that it has user photos so you can catch a glimpse of what your plane will look like. The site also pulls in seating charts and ratings from sister site SeatGuru.

For most of us, flying will never really be fun — but now at least we’ve got one more option to help us save money and make that in-flight experience just a little bit brighter.

How to Hack Your Way to a Cheaper Airfare

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns SeatGuru.com.