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Today is the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and while many of us dread the season’s chilly days and long nights, here at IndependentTraveler.com we’re looking on the bright side. Pack your snowboots and mittens, and join us for a virtual trip around the world’s winter wonderlands.

northern lights norway


Norway is one of several countries where you can see the northern lights color the night sky.

yaksaam temple winter south korea


Yaksaam Temple is part of Geumosan Provincial Park in South Korea.

quebec city


Quebec City celebrates winter with numerous activities, including toboggan rides along Terrasse Dufferin.

japan snow monkeys


Outside of Nagano, Japan, visitors can get up close and personal with snow monkeys keeping warm in the area’s hot springs.

vatnajokull glacier iceland


In winter, you can hike through one of the ice caves near Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland.

bryce canyon in the snow utah


Utah’s spectacular Bryce Canyon, a national park, looks even more striking under a dusting of snow.

moscow in the snow


Moscow‘s famously chilly winters make for picturesque scenes like this one.

Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Winter?
How to Pack for a Winter Vacation

— 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 famous mountain has more than half a dozen routes to the top.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, December 19, 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 Harriette Henderson, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Harriette 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

Check out what’s worth reading in the travel world from the past week.

woman with phone on plane


The U.S. Government May Allow In-Flight Phone Calls, and People Are Freaking Out
Business Insider reports on a recent proposal from the U.S. Department of Transportation that would require airlines and booking agents to state in advance whether passengers are allowed to make voice calls on flights. Passengers are currently not allowed to make voice calls via their cell phones on certain radio frequencies, but there are no rules against chatting via Wi-Fi using services such as Skype.

50 Reasons to #LovetheWorld
Clicking through this gallery from BBC will spark your wanderlust all over again. The site has reached out to dozens of contributers and travelers for anecdotes from incredible journeys around the world.

Conquering Choquequirao: The Long Walk to Peru’s Lesser-Known ‘Lost City’
Lonely Planet takes us on a hike to the long-hidden Incan citadel of Choquequirao, which currently only gets about a dozen visitors a day but may become more accessible in the near future.

Next Year Is Shaping Up to Be Another Good One for Airlines — and Travelers
How about some good news for your holiday season via NBC News? Among the findings in this report: Fares are falling, traveler satisfaction with airlines in North America has reached a 10-year high and a couple of airlines have brought back free in-flight snacks.

Cuba’s Young Artists Embrace a New World
This National Geographic feature offers fascinating photos and stories from the young people of Cuba, where “individualism is creeping out into the open” after the recent death of Fidel Castro.

‘Basic Economy’ Fares Make Sense: Opposing View
When United recently announced that its new Basic Economy fares would not include overhead bin access, many travelers and news outlets responded with outrage. But this piece on USA Today makes the case for these bargain-basement fares, arguing that while they won’t suit everyone, they fill a niche for price-sensitive travelers who don’t need many amenities.

Rome’s Sad Christmas Tree Gets a Makeover After Residents Complain
When in Rome … you’d better not have a skimpy Christmas tree. Conde Nast Traveler reports on a recent controversy over the tree in the Italian capital, which was dubbed the “Austerity Tree” by disgruntled locals. Its decorations have since been, er, spruced up.

This week’s video offers an intimate look at everyday life in Bali.


How to Get the Best Airplane Seat
11 Things Not to Do on a Plane

— written by Sarah Schlichter

The STM Drifter Backpack makes an attractive option for travelers who bring laptops, tablets or both when they hit the road. There’s room not just for your devices and chargers, but also for travel documents, a book or magazine for the plane, and even a change of clothes. You can also use the bag at home for commuting or hiking.

stm drifter backpack


After taking the bag for a quick spin, here’s what we liked — and didn’t like so much — about the STM Drifter.

What We Liked
It’s comfortable to wear. The back is well padded, and the adjustable back and sternum straps make it easy to distribute the bag’s weight.

It feels sturdy. Everything from the heavy-duty zippers to the thick, well-padded straps feels durable and well made.

It’s got lots of storage. There are three pockets on the front of the bag, including one fitted with slots for pens and other small items, and one that’s padded for a cell phone. On one side is a pocket for a water bottle or umbrella; on the other is a small zippered compartment. In the main section of the bag are a see-through mesh pocket (with zipper), one large open pocket, padded sleeves for a laptop and tablet, and a few other nooks and crannies. The sleeves for your devices “float” above the bottom of the main compartment, helping to protect them if you drop the pack.

It’s got a rain cover. Hidden away in zippered compartment at the bottom of the bag is a thin rain cover that you can pull up to protect the bag. (Mustard yellow isn’t the most attractive color for it, but its high visibility might be an advantage if you’re walking or biking on a gray, rainy day.)

It’s easy to pair with a wheeled suitcase. There’s a wide strap on the back that lets you slip the pack down the extendable handle of a rolling suitcase.

What We Didn’t Like
It won’t work for large laptops. The bag is meant for 15-inch computers, but will hold most 11- to 16-inch laptops. If your machine is larger, you’ll need to try a different bag.

The main compartment doesn’t unzip very far. This is a top-loading bag, and the zippers for the main compartment don’t extend too far down the sides, so it’s not as easy as it might be with other bags to reach in from the side to grab something, or to find things at the very bottom.

It’s expensive. At a price point of $135 to $140 (depending on where you buy it), the STM Drifter is pricier than most other laptop backpacks.

The Bottom Line
This is a good-quality laptop backpack that’s ideal for both traveling and commuting, but the price point may make it a stretch for some travelers.

You can buy the STM Drifter at the STM website or at Amazon.com.

How to Pack Efficiently: 8 Products That Can Help
12 Best Travel Gadgets for Any Trip

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Editorial Disclosure: Some products are sent to us free of charge to be considered for review. We choose products to review based on their relevance and usefulness to our readers. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not promise any editorial coverage, particularly positive reviews.

This week’s puzzle is a country shapes quiz! Take a look at the silhouette and below and tell us which country you think it is.

mystery country


Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, December 12, 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 Laura, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery country was Argentina. Laura has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Stay tuned for more chances to win.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Check out what you might have missed around the travel world this week.

airplane passenger


British Airways Has Patented a ‘Digital Pill’ to Make Flying Easier — But Is It Really Necessary?
The Independent reports on a bizarre new patent filed by British Airways, involving passengers swallowing a small digital chip that will transmit information such as their body temperature and stomach acidity level in order to help the cabin crew better tend to their physical needs. Useful … or creepy?

The 10 Most Beautiful Places in Italy — as Voted by You
Rough Guides is here with your weekly dose of travel porn: droolworthy photos from around the Boot, from Florence to Cinque Terre. Swoon!

Meet Bette Nash: She Might Just Be the World’s Oldest Serving Flight Attendant
We enjoyed this fun profile from CNN of an 80-year-old flight attendant who’s been serving in the skies for nearly 60 years.

Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive
Caution: You may get hungry reading this essay from Roads & Kingdoms about “Brother Lamp,” a noodle expert in Chongqing, China. The author of the story joins Brother Lamp to try dozens of bowls of xiaomian, breakfast noodles made with various vegetables and meats.

Learn How This Couple Is Traveling the World on $24 a Day
Need a little travel inspiration? Check out this story from the Washington Post about a couple who have trimmed their travel budget down to a mere $12.20 per person, per day, thanks to tactics such as traveling by bus and searching for local guesthouses that don’t advertise online.

Online Booking Is, Like, So ’90s: The Humble Travel Agent Is Making a Comeback
NBC News reports on the resurgence of travelers using agents to book all or part of their trips. “It’s time versus money. A lot of people just don’t have the time or the expertise to plan a trip and do it well,” says one travel agent quoted in the story.

50 Reasons to Love the World
Get inspired as you click through this gorgeous gallery from BBC, in which various travelers share their photos and travel memories.

This week’s video takes us to Havana and beyond in a voyage around Cuba.


Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter

We recently published a slideshow of the 9 Most Boring Cities in the World, with picks including Frankfurt, Ottawa and Casablanca.

ottawa at night


Do you agree or disagree with our list? What are the most boring cities you’ve ever visited? Share your opinions in the comments below.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

This week’s puzzle is a word scramble. Below are the jumbled names of four major cities from around the world, followed by the country where they’re located. Your job is to unscramble them. For example, “IALM, EURP” would be “Lima, Peru.” Multi-word cities or countries are scrambled into one word, so “San Juan” might appear as SJAANUN. (Hint: This week there is one multi-word city.) Identify all four mystery cities to win.

GVAENE, LRTWEIZDNAS

HDOA, ARTQA

BOTOEGMYNA, AJAICMA

AOLGS, RIEINAG


Enter your list of unscrambled cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, December 5, 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 Jaclynkelli Kronemberg, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the puzzle answers below.

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND

DOHA, QATAR

MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA

LAGOS, NIGERIA


— created by Sarah Schlichter

Read up on the news and stories you may have missed this week from around the travel world.

travelers on segways


The Inventions That Ruined Travel
Have a laugh over this tongue-in-cheek list of travel abominations from the Telegraph, featuring things like Segways, wax museums and “ride-on” suitcases. Our favorite is the section on selfie sticks, or “this narcissistic weapon of Satan.”

Otherworldly Silence
Warning: After clicking through this stunning Maptia photo essay about Antarctica, you may find yourself researching trips to the world’s most remote continent.

From Grand Hotel to Microhotel: How Your Stay Has Changed in 200 Years
Conde Nast Traveler surveys two centuries of hotel trends, starting with the grand properties that sprang up in 19th-century Europe and extending through the chain hotels of the early 20th century and the hip boutiques of the 1980s and 1990s. The author even offers a vision of what hotels might look like in the future.

29 Travel Hacks That Even Frequent Fliers Don’t Know
Insider rounds up some clever tips that go beyond the usual travel advice, including grabbing a cab in your airport’s departure zone instead of at arrivals and keeping a small waterproof bag packed at all times with necessary chargers and cables.

Fake Service Animals and Why Airline Passengers Are Upset
South Florida’s Sun Sentinel reports on a growing trend: the rise in service and emotional support animals on planes. Some travelers are abusing the laws requiring airlines to accept service animals by pretending that their pets are traveling with them for emotional support when they’re really just trying to evade the rules and fees for bringing a pet onboard.

5 Ways Travel for Frequent Fliers Got Worse in 2016
Skift offers a glum look at the air travel landscape, which in 2016 featured rising admission fees to airline lounges and the advent of “basic economy” fares.

12 Poignant Images of Tribal Peoples Around the World
Rough Guides showcases the photos that will appear in the 2017 calendar of Survival International, an advocacy group for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world. These images capture these people’s human dignity and endangered lifestyle.

This week’s video is a mesmerizing peek into the Kyushu region of Japan.


12 Best Japan Experiences
18 Best Airport Hacks

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Many modern rental cars offer sophisticated “infotainment” systems that can link up to your smartphone via Bluetooth, allowing you to make hands-free calls, stream your music through the vehicle’s speakers and use your favorite map app for navigation. But these systems can pose a security risk by storing your personal data, including contacts, call logs, text messages and the places you visit during your rental.

smartphone in car


“Unless you delete that data before you return the car, other people may view it, including future renters and rental car employees or even hackers,” cautions the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

So how can you enjoy the convenience of your car’s infotainment system without compromising your security? Collin Ikim of Magrenta, a Romanian car rental company, says he always shows clients how to wipe their data from the system before returning their vehicles. “Most people return [their] rental car at the last moment, when they’re already in a hurry,” he says. “You should give yourself time to remove the personal data stored in the car. It’s a matter of minutes.”

Ikim recommends going into the settings menu of the infotainment system. “There you’ll find a list of devices that have been paired: locate yours and follow the prompts to delete it. If you used the car’s navigation system, clear your location history.”

If all you need is to charge your phone, both Ikim and the FTC recommend using an adapter to power the device via the car’s cigarette lighter rather than connecting via USB to the infotainment system, which might capture your data automatically.

If you do decide to use the system, you can usually choose which data you want to share. Keep your permissions as limited as possible to avoid putting information unnecessarily at risk.

For those renting a car in their own local area, Ikim offers one final suggestion: “Consider setting your home address to a nearby intersection. If strangers get … access to your car, they won’t know the precise directions to your specific home address.”

11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling
Avoiding Identity Theft: A Cautionary Tale at 35,000 Feet

— written by Sarah Schlichter