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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

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 8, 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 Denise, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Bosnia and Herzegovina. She has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

paris apartment buildingAirbnb is the latest darling of the lodging industry, renting attractive and affordable flats, houses and spare rooms in destinations all over the world. (You can count us among its fans!) But over the past few years it’s also faced some legal challenges. Recently officials in Paris raided nearly 2,000 rentals suspected to be illegal rentals, according to Road Warrior Voices; they discovered 101 violations.

Paris is one of several cities — including New York and San Francisco — that place restrictions on short-term rentals in an attempt to preserve the housing supply for their own residents. As a general rule, it’s legal in most cities to offer up a spare room as long as you’re present during your guest’s stay; what draws the ire of city governments is when hosts rent out unoccupied apartments or homes on a short-term basis when those could be used instead to provide housing for locals.

That hasn’t stopped droves of eager hosts from listing their properties and risking possible fines; there are currently more than 1,000 listings on Airbnb in each of the three cities mentioned above. (Worth noting: While Airbnb has gotten most of the notoriety for its recent legal battles, countless other vacation rental sites such as HomeAway and VRBO also have similar, potentially problematic listings.)

As a potential guest, are crackdowns such as the recent ones in Paris something you need to worry about? In Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals, Ed Hewitt notes, “In most cases, the law does not consider the traveler the offender — rather it considers the host the offender — so you are mostly in the clear. That won’t help if you experience a raid in the middle of your stay, however, or if you are subject to a more prosaic ejection, such as by the landlord — or even if you get the stink eye and a dressing down from unhappy neighbors.”

Hewitt goes on to offer numerous tips for how to protect yourself, including questioning your host about legal issues before your stay and researching a few nearby hotels to which you could retreat if the worst happens.

Vacation Rentals: A Traveler’s Guide

Personally, such crackdowns wouldn’t stop me from booking with Airbnb — though I might elect not to do it in Paris. What about you?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

overhead bin airplane flight attendantAs part of the eternal struggle to speed up the process of getting fliers onto planes, Delta Air Lines is trying a new strategy: preloading carry-on bags for its passengers. According to USA Today, the carrier will be offering a complimentary Early Valet service on select flights this summer, which will involve having airline employees take passengers’ carry-ons at the gate and put them into the overhead bins nearest their assigned seats.

The airline’s hope is that its employees will be more efficient in loading the plane than passengers would, helping ensure a timelier departure. USA Today reports that the airline has previously tested this strategy and found “some reduction in boarding time.”

The theory makes sense. After all, how often have you seen fellow passengers holding up the line while they heave and ho to get weighty bags into the bin? And then there are the fliers who force others to find other spots for their bags because they put their rolling suitcases in sideways instead of wheels first, taking up twice as much space. Let’s face it: Airline employees are almost guaranteed to be better at loading a plane than we passengers are.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

The question, though, is whether the process of taking people’s bags at the gate will cancel out most of the time saved during the actual boarding procedure. Frequent flier expert Gary Leff, quoted in the USA Today article, also raises a good point: “‘This has the potential to come across as a nice, high-end service,’ Leff said, ‘but I’m skeptical that it will go mainstream’ because of labor costs.”

How do you think airlines could optimize the boarding process?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

tulum ruins mexico


Population: 30 million

Currency: Malaysian ringgit

Phrase to Know: Nama saya… (My name is…)

Fun Fact: Home to thousands of different plant and animal species, Malaysia is one of 17 nations on the planet designated as “megadiverse” by Conservation International. (The U.S., Australia and Brazil are among the others.)

We Recommend: Sample the incredible street food in George Town, Penang. One of our favorite options is char koay teow, rice noodles stir-fried with prawns, cockles, bean sprouts and an optional egg.

11 Best Malaysia Experiences

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

— written by Sarah Schlichter

amsterdam canal housesWe recently challenged our readers to write a trip review about their travels for a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card. We received a number of excellent submissions, detailing everything from excursions in Barbados to a whirlwind weekend in Bucharest.

Choosing the best review was a true challenge, but in the end we went with Christian Dew’s dispatch from the Netherlands, Going Dutch. Here’s an excerpt:

“I am a frequent visitor of the Netherlands and I love all things Dutch. Born and raised in America, a southern girl with a wanderlust mind, the Netherlands has a special place in my heart. Have you ever wanted to see the North Sea? Take a train through the Dutch countryside? Visit an old windmill? Go to a concert to see one of your favorite artists? Then I invite you to come and join me on this reading adventure of Going Dutch.” Read the rest!

While we only had one prize to give, we want to highlight a few runners-up that we also loved reading:

A Trip Underground, Running from Killer Coconuts and Tripped by a Turtle by Andrea MacEachern: “The others in my group went in one direction and I walked in another, solo through the maze of paths, [enjoying] the serene sounds of leaves blowing softly in the wind and birds chirping until suddenly, that peacefulness was shattered by a loud, crashing thud followed by shouting. I thought I was alone in that area but on the other side of the trees to the right of me, a couple from my tour was enjoying a leisurely stroll, just like I was, when a coconut came crashing to the ground about a foot away from the man’s head.”

Fall family trip to Italy, France and Spain via cruise ship by Nancy Lorentson: “Day three was the Vatican. We had gotten self-guided tour tickets online … 20-something dollars each, which is well worth it as the lines are long. You go in the back door museum entrance and we saw the entire museum. Try to get there at opening when it is less crowded.”

Iceland During the Winter by Rae Ann Wright: “Here we enjoyed the first half of a full ‘Culinary Coastal and Countryside’ tour. We were able to focus on the seaside and materials from the sea as well as the first microbrewery in Iceland. All the producers we visited were small family firms, and for some the knowledge had traveled from generation to generation. They offered us to taste fresh fish, local microbrewery beer and salted cod.”

Feeling inspired? Share advice from your latest trip!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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