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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!

hot water beach poolIn this month’s winning review, a traveler discovers New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula during the winter off season. “Hot Water Beach is famous for its underground hot springs that can filter up through the sand at low tide,” writes Lauren Meeks. “Visitors from all over the world bring shovels and try to time their digging so that they’ve built up their little pool right around the time that low tide is reached, so that they can sit and enjoy their very own homemade sauna. The pictures in the tourist brochure definitely promise big things … the reality for us was a bit different.”

Read the rest of Lauren’s review here: Exploring the Coromandel Peninsula. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

— 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: One of this city’s landmarks is a monument featuring a dying lion.

Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, February 22, 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 Sharon Stover, who correctly guessed that this week’s mystery location was Lucerne, Switzerland. Sharon 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

cinque terre italyRead up on our favorite stories from the travel world this week.

The Italian Villages So Popular You Will Now Need a TICKET to Visit Them
The Daily Mail reports that Cinque Terre, a collection of five famously charming coastal villages in Italy, is so overwhelmed by travelers that it will be limiting them in 2016. This past year 2.5 million people visited the site, but the 2016 total will be capped at 1.5 million, with advance tickets sold online.

How to Avoid Getting Counterfeit Money When You Travel
Counterfeit money may not be something you usually worry about when you travel, but Forbes reports that it may be more common than you’d expect in some parts of the world. This comprehensive article advises travelers to get money from ATMs associated with banks (rather than those at shopping malls or in standalone locations) and to check for things like blurred ink or flimsy paper when receiving change.

25 Amazing Images from This Year’s Travel Photographer of the Year Awards
Feast your eyes on this collection of travel photos from Rough Guides, ranging from intimate portraits of local people to a staggering shot of what may be the world’s most crowded swimming pool.

Advice for Avoiding Costly Airline Fees for Changing Plans
If you’ve booked a nonrefundable plane ticket — as most of us do — you could pay up to $200 (plus fare differences) if you need to change your plans. The Associated Press offers a few tips to help you avoid change fees, including booking with one of the few airlines that don’t charge such fees.

Behind the Masks in West Africa
CNN offers a fascinating slideshow from a photo series called “Woongo, Behind the Masks,” in which Tunisian artist Selim Harbi took pictures of West African people wearing traditional masks in an attempt to provide a different perspective on the way Africa is typically represented in the media.

These German Vacationers Don’t Take Kindly to the Kinder
The Wall Street Journal reports on a new trend in German luxury hotels: banning children. The story quotes one traveler who says, “I feel annoyed by the mere presence of children. Their running around, their loudness, their parents — it creates a tense atmosphere.” Hotels have limited their guests to adults only in an attempt to create tranquility.

This week’s video needs a warning for excessive cuteness. Behold: a polar bear at the Toronto Zoo seeing snow for the first time.

Polar bear cub sees snow for the first time!

Take a look at our polar bear cub seeing snow for the first time! ❄ #TOpolarbearcub

Posted by The Toronto Zoo on Friday, February 12, 2016


Photos: 11 Best Italy Experiences
The Best and Worst Days to Fly

— written by Sarah Schlichter

cuban flag trinidad cubaFor Americans, taking a trip to Cuba got a little easier on Tuesday, when the U.S. and Cuban governments agreed to reinstate commercial air travel between the two countries for the first time in more than a half-century. Yahoo! News reports that up to 110 daily flights will be permitted between the U.S. and 10 different airports in Cuba, with 20 of those going to Havana. Before this agreement Americans could only fly to Cuba from the U.S. aboard charter flights or by connecting in another country such as Canada or Mexico.

The new flights aren’t available just yet, but odds are that your favorite airline is interested in offering them. According to USA Today, most of the major U.S. airlines have expressed their intent to apply for flights to Cuba, including American, Delta, United, JetBlue and Spirit. Southwest and Alaska are considering putting in bids as well.

Per Yahoo! News, the airlines have about two weeks to submit their applications, and we should find out which flights will be available within about six months.

Americans should keep in mind that visits to Cuba for simple “touristic” purposes are still not permitted — so if you’re dreaming of wandering freely around Havana or lying on a beach in Varadero, tap the brakes. Even after commercial flights are in place, you’ll still need to verify that you are traveling to Cuba for one of the 12 purposes permitted by the U.S. government, including “educational activities” and “support for the Cuban people.” (You can find the full list at Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How.)

For now, the easiest way to visit Cuba is still to travel with a group such as Intrepid Travel, smarTours, Insight Cuba or Cuba Explorer, all of which offer government-compliant itineraries and will arrange charter flights for you.

Havana Travel Guide
A Walking Tour of Old Havana
People to People: Why You Might NOT Want to Visit Cuba Independently

— 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, February 15, 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 Mickey Molnaire, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Guatemala. Mickey has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

gubeikou great wall of chinaIt’s that time of the week! Catch up on all the great travel stories you may have missed over the past seven days.

Walking the Great Wall’s Wild Side
This engaging story from the Alaska Airlines blog details a hiking adventure along an unrestored section of the Great Wall of China. Along the way the writer befriends three local women and tests his own bravery in the face of narrow paths and precipitous ledges.

Air Emergencies: Are Airlines Telling You What You Need to Know?
Canada’s CBC News reports that many airline safety briefings leave out a key bit of information that could save your life in a crash. A safety researcher quoted in the article says that using the brace position (in which you stabilize your body by bending over with your head against the seat in front of you) can “reduce severity of injuries” and “reduce deaths.” The position is illustrated on the safety card in your seatback pocket but often not mentioned in safety videos or live demonstrations by flight attendants.

How Scientists Are ‘Hacking’ the Body to Override Jet Lag
Could flashing lights help cure jet lag? That’s the latest from Conde Nast Traveler, which reports on a new study that tested short flashes of light administered 10 seconds apart while study participants were sleeping. This treatment is believed to help the brain acclimate more quickly to time changes.

Nanyuki: The Kenyan Town Where Your Valentine’s Roses Are Grown
We had no idea until we read this Rough Guides article that Kenya was a key supplier of roses to the European Union. The writer profiles the market town of Nanyuki, an expat hub with a perfect climate for growing flowers.

Minimum Airline Seat Standards Could Become Law
Traveler advocate Christopher Elliott brings welcome news in a post on LinkedIn, writing about a recently proposed Congressional bill that would establish a minimum size for airplane seats (which seem to be shrinking by the day). We’re keeping our fingers crossed!

Life in Paris’s 10th and 11th Arrondissements, 3 Months After the Attacks
New York Magazine interviews a number of locals in the areas of Paris most affected by November’s terrorist attacks, from a rapper who wrote a song about the tragedy to a restaurant owner trying to move past her anxiety.

A Robot Butler Is Replacing Humans in Some California Hotels
The next time you ring the front desk staff to ask if they have a spare toothbrush, you might find the real-life equivalent of R2-D2 bringing it to your door. Business Insider reports on a growing trend of robots in hotels, with about a dozen properties now employing them in California.

This week’s video features droolworthy footage from the Norwegian fjords, where a dedicated young guitarist hauled his instrument up to a few of the region’s most spectacular overlooks.


Top Tips for Fighting Jet Lag
The Best and Worst Days to Fly

— written by Sarah Schlichter

world mapI recently stumbled across a website that lets you create a customized map highlighting all the countries you’ve visited. (You can try it yourself at Traveltip.org.) While I initially considered it merely a fun exercise, I found myself hesitating as I checked off a few of the options — could I really count Denmark if I’d only spent an overnight there between flights and didn’t actually get to see anything besides my hotel? (My answer: Nope.) But I did count Guatemala, which I visited on a day trip from Belize.

Everyone draws the line differently when deciding which countries to count — or not to count — on their own personal lists. In The Politics of Country Counting, Sam Wright Fairbanks of Map Happy offers several different criteria you might use, such as spending at least 24 hours, getting through customs or traveling to more than one city within the country.

And then, of course, there are places that may not technically be countries, such as Taiwan or Greenland — do you count those? What about Scotland vs. England vs. Northern Ireland, all part of the United Kingdom but different in culture and history? Map Happy points to a couple of travel clubs that address this by splitting the world into not only internationally recognized countries but also smaller geographical territories and areas. These include the Travelers’ Century Club — which considers places like Alaska, Hawaii, Prince Edward Island and the Isle of Man to be separate from their parent countries — and Most Traveled People, which slices the world into a whopping 875 regions you can visit. (You must become a member of the club to see the region list.)

No matter which standard you use, counting countries is a fun exercise, though I sometimes have to remind myself not to take it too seriously. While shooting for your 10th or 50th or 100th country can inspire you to plan new adventures, the world isn’t a checklist — and just because you’ve visited a particular country, it doesn’t mean that you’ve “done” that place in the sense that you’ve experienced everything it has to offer.

Of course, none of that will stop me from trying to fill in a few more spots on that Travelertip map.

Photos: 9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should
Bucket List Travel

How do you determine whether you’ve visited a country?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

We’re introducing a new type of puzzle this week: a word scramble. Below are the scrambled 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.” Identify all four mystery cities to win.

OOGTAB, CIAOMOBL

CHLOOKSTM, ENWSDE

AEARMKSRH, OOCMROC

NUORBMLEE, RAATSAIUL


Enter your list of unscrambled cities in the comments below. You have until Monday, February 8, 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 Lou Pereira, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the puzzle answers below.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

MARRAKESH, MOROCCO

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA


— created by Sarah Schlichter

meroe pyramids sudanWhat travel news have you missed this week? Catch up with our list of the week’s best stories.

The Pyramids Few Tourists Have Ever Seen
Did you know that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt? This photo essay from BBC Travel offers a fascinating glimpse at these ancient ruins, which receive only about 10 visitors a day.

A 16-Hour Dreamliner Flight with No Jet Lag? Believe It!
United is launching a new 16-hour route from San Francisco to Singapore aboard an aircraft that could revolutionize the way we feel after a long flight, reports Conde Nast Traveler. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner has more humidity than most planes and makes travelers feel like they’re flying at a slightly lower altitude than they would on a standard flight — both of which will help travelers feel less tired and dried-out when they touch down. It should all add up to less jet lag; here’s hoping!

Why 2016 Will Be a Terrible Year for Earning Frequent Flier Miles
Bad news for anyone who loves using their miles for free flights — later this year American will join Delta and United in awarding miles based on the fare you pay rather than the miles you fly, reports Skift. That means that most non-elite travelers and fliers who pay the lowest available fare will likely earn fewer miles. To add insult to injury, the price of award tickets is also going up.

Five Myths About Airline Food
USA Today separates fact from fiction when it comes to airline food. Is it true that all airplane meals are frozen and reheated later? Are they designed to make passengers sleepy? Are all the good meals saved for those in the front of the plane? The story answers these questions and more.

London Lost and Found
We loved reading this thoughtful essay from the New York Times on what it’s like to come back as a tourist to a place you once lived. The author vividly captures that complicated mix of familiarity and strangeness in a city you used to know well.

EasyJet Unveils Plan for “Hybrid” Planes Using Hydrogen Fuel Cells
CNN reports that easyJet (a European low-cost carrier) is trying out a new technology that could save 50,000 tons of fuel each year and reduce its airplanes’ carbon emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells could essentially turn the carrier’s planes into hybrid aircraft, allowing them to take off and land without using any fuel. It sounds promising — but even if it works, the technology is likely at least five years away.

Get your tissues ready for this week’s featured travel video, a heartwarming offering from British Airways.


4 Travel Videos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go
10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

— written by Sarah Schlichter

mazar i sharif mosqueEver dreamed about taking a trip to Afghanistan? How about Pakistan, Chechnya or Somalia? For travelers with a lust for adventure and a high tolerance for risk, there’s a company that will take you to these and many other seemingly dangerous places.

Untamed Borders was founded in 2006 by Kausar Hussain and James Wilcox, two adventure guides who met in the mountains of Afghanistan. Their mission is to offer “unparalleled access to some of the world’s most interesting and inaccessible places,” according to the company’s website.

Itineraries include an annual “Melons & Grapes — Grand Afghan Tour,” a two-week trip that combines a few days in Kabul with time in remote rural areas and ancient cities; a weeklong journey called “Chechnya, Dagestan and Russia’s Deep South,” which stops in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Derbent, a fortified Persian hill town; and a 16-day exploration of the tribal states in northeastern India. More active adventures are also available, including horse trekking in Tajikistan, glacier trekking in Pakistan and even running a marathon in Afghanistan.

The group size is always small — no more than 12 people, and often fewer — both for safety reasons and to keep the trips flexible. The company can also arrange custom trips for journalists, climbers, skiers, photographers or independent travelers interested in certain areas.

Of course, the big question is: Just how safe are these trips? The FAQ section on the company’s website notes that certain parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan are significantly more dangerous than others, and the trips are deliberately planned in the safer areas. In an article on CNN, the company notes that months of planning go into each trip, including plenty of brainstorming for worst-case scenarios.

The company relies on government warnings as well as first-hand info from local guides and contacts living in each country. On some trips, groups travel not only with guides but also with a security detail. All itineraries are subject to change if the situation on the ground becomes unstable, and guests must have travel insurance that covers them in the country they’re visiting. (Note: This may be difficult to find, but Untamed Borders can recommend a few specialty insurers.)

Such remote adventures don’t come cheap. Organized group trips start at 1,600 GBP per person (about $2,300 USD as of this writing), which includes accommodations, transportation, guides and breakfast. Travelers are responsible for flights, visas, insurance and other meals. If you’re traveling solo, you won’t need to pay a single supplement, but you will be expected to share a room with someone else in the group.

Travel Warnings and Advisories
18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling

Would you consider a trip with Untamed Borders?