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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

If you’ve ever had a travel-size bottle of shampoo or lotion leak all over the inside of your suitcase, you might be a good candidate to try a new brand of toiletries called Squeeze Pod. As the name suggests, these are stored in lightweight, single-use “pods” that can be squeezed to dispense each product. They’re designed not to leak until you break the seal; after use, you simply throw them away.

Check out this quick video about how they work:


I tried out a variety of Squeeze Pod products on a recent trip to Cuba. I found that the toiletries were pleasantly scented and did their job just fine. The only slight exception was the toilet odor eliminator, which didn’t entirely banish the smell I needed banished, but helped matters significantly by masking it with a clean, eucalyptus-tinted fragrance. All Squeeze Pod toiletries are vegan, sulfate-free, made in the U.S. and not tested on animals.

My only hitch was actually opening the pods. It’s important to break the seal by pulling the tab up toward the colored side of the packaging, not the other way. (The pods I tested didn’t have this labeled, but a spokesperson says the company is hoping to add clearer instructions in the future, as well as experimenting with different kinds of plastic that would only bend in one direction.) Pulling the tab the wrong way at first causes the seal not to break cleanly, leaving me spurting shampoo all over the shower wall on one occasion, and having to squeeze with a wrestler’s strength to eke the gel out through a too-tiny hole on several other occasions.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

squeeze pod variety packSqueeze Pod currently has five products for sale on its website: toilet odor eliminator, moisturizing lotion, hair gel, shave cream and hand purifier. Four of the other toiletries I was able to try are not currently for sale, but the company tells us they’re coming in June: shampoo, conditioner, facial cleanser and body wash. The cost ranges from $1.49 for a three-pack of hand purifier to $120 for a sampler of more than 225 pods of various types.

Want to try these toiletries out for yourself? We’re giving away a variety pack that includes two to three pods each of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, facial cleanser, toilet odor eliminator, shaving cream, hand purifier, moisturizing lotion and hair gel. Just leave us a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on May 31, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the variety pack. This giveaway is open only to residents of the lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner of the Squeeze Pod toiletry pack is Anisa Parker. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further chances to win.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

patagonia mountains argentina hiker


Population: 43 million

Currency: Argentine peso

Phrase to Know: No entiendo (I don’t understand)

Fun Fact: Buenos Aires is home to one of the world’s widest avenues; 9 de Julio Avenue stretches up to seven lanes in each direction.

We Recommend: Take a cruise at the edge of the world in Ushuaia, one of the planet’s southernmost cities. The nearby Beagle Channel is home to sea lions, albatrosses and other wildlife.

10 Best Argentina Experiences

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

— written by Sarah Schlichter

havana cuba classic carI returned last week from a trip to Havana, Cuba, where I discovered a country on the verge of potentially drastic changes. Since December, when President Obama announced his intention to begin normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba, it’s become easier for Americans to visit Cuba legally — and interest in travel to the Caribbean’s largest island has skyrocketed.

Fortunately, there are numerous tour operators offering opportunities to American travelers. I was part of a small group on a people-to-people itinerary arranged by New York-based smarTours. A spokesman for the company tells us that “online inquiries and phone calls have more than doubled since the historic announcement in December 2014, and we are almost sold out of spots for Cuba for 2015.”

With further political and economic maneuverings on the way, including the removal of Cuba from the U.S. state terrorism list, it’s clear that the country is on the brink of tremendous change (much of it welcomed by the Cuban people). If you’re one of the thousands of Americans planning a trip in the coming months to see the country as it is today, here are five things you need to know.

Bring plenty of cash.
MasterCard has said it will allow its credit cards to be used in Cuba, but that’s not a reality yet because the banking system simply isn’t in place. This means you can’t withdraw money from ATMs either — so you’ll want to bring more cash than you expect to spend during your trip to allow for emergencies. (As a guideline, Cuba isn’t a bargain for travelers the way Southeast Asia is, but it’s generally more affordable than traveling in the U.S. or Europe.)

If you can get a good exchange rate — or you have some left over from a previous trip — consider bringing euros, Canadian dollars or British pounds instead of U.S. dollars. When changing money from the greenback to the Cuban Convertible Peso (known locally as the CUC, which rhymes with “fluke”), you’ll have to pay an additional 10 percent fee that doesn’t apply to other currencies. The good news is that you don’t have to pay the fee when converting CUCs back to dollars at the end of your trip; if you turn in 40 CUCs, you’ll receive $40 in return.

And speaking of CUCs…

Keep an eye on your change.
The CUC is one of two currencies used in Cuba. The other one, the peso, is worth significantly less than the CUC, and the bills look similar. Someone in our group was given a three-peso note as change instead of a three-CUC note, which meant that she got only about 11 cents back instead of three dollars.

Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How

Prepare to be out of touch.
You won’t be able to call or text from an American phone in Cuba — though you can use Wi-Fi when it’s available. Internet is offered at some hotels, but it tends to be both slow and pricey. (I paid about $7 an hour at my hotel, Havana’s Melia Cohiba.)

Eat at paladares.
Cuba’s privately owned restaurants, known as paladares, tend to offer better food than those run by the government. Expect to see a lot of rice and beans, as well as fish, Caribbean lobster and ropa vieja (shredded flank steak). Vegetables and fruits vary based on what’s in season; due to the U.S. embargo, Cubans have trouble importing certain foods, so the menus won’t be as varied as those you might see back home.

Keep small change on hand.
If you want a photo with one of the colorfully costumed locals brandishing flowers or cigars in the major squares around Old Havana, prepare to hand over a CUC or two for the privilege. More importantly, you’ll also want to have anywhere from 25 cents to a CUC to give to the attendants at many bathrooms around the country. Yes, paying to pee can be annoying — and you won’t be barred from the restroom if you don’t offer a coin or two — but in a country that’s struggling economically, what seems like chump change to us can make a big difference to the locals.

Cuba Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

cormorant fisherman yangshuo china


Population: 1.4 billion

Currency: Yuan renminbi

Phrase to Know: Xie xie (thank you — pronounced “shi-eh shi-eh”)

Fun Fact: The fortune cookie was not actually invented in China; it’s believed to have been created in the early 20th century in California. In fact, Wonton Food attempted to establish a fortune cookie factory in China in the 1990s, but had to close it because the cookies were considered too American.

We Recommend: Cuddle a panda at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. There’s an extra fee and you’ll have to make reservations in advance, but the experience is one-of-a-kind.

12 Best China Experiences

Have you been to China? 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.

trolle ljungby castle in sweden


Population: 9.7 million

Currency: Swedish krona

Phrase to Know: Pratar du engelska? (Do you speak English?)

Fun Fact: According to the country’s official website, Sweden.se, Stockholm collects more than two million pounds of food waste per month and turns it into fuel for the city’s buses and taxis.

We Recommend: Spend in a night in one of Sweden’s most unusual hotels, from modernist treehouses to an airplane-turned-hotel.

Photos: 11 Best Sweden Experiences

Have you been to Sweden? 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, April 27, 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 Cayce L, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Sri Lanka. Cayce has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!

— written 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!

crocodiles costa ricaIn this month’s featured review, reader Jill Weinlein travels with her husband and 10-year-old daughter to look for wildlife and waterfalls in Costa Rica. “We stopped at a local touristy spot, Tarcoles River, on our way to Quepos to enjoy a refreshing cold coconut and fresh juice smoothies,” Jill writes. “Along the center of the bridge, people gathered to see at least twenty enormous crocodiles basking in the sun along the river bank.”

Read the rest of Jill’s review here: 10 Destinations to Visit in Costa Rica. This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review — you could win a $50 Amazon gift card! Just be sure to submit your trip review by May 21.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

12 apostles australia


Population: 22.5 million

Currency: Australian dollar

Phrase to Know: Good on ya (well done, good for you)

Fun Fact: Australia is home to the world’s oldest known fossils: cyanobacteria found in the Archaean rocks of Western Australia.

We Recommend: Stay overnight on a remote cattle station in the Outback, where you can participate in a cattle roundup, go for a horseback ride and more.

11 Best Australia Experiences

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

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Well, aren’t these the cutest first-class fliers you’ve ever seen?

qantas koala


Australian flag carrier Qantas recently flew four koalas called Paddle, Pellita, Chan and Idalia from Brisbane to Singapore, where they will live at the Singapore Zoo for the next six months, reports Travel Pulse. The loan is in honor of Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence.

qantas koala


The airline shared a few photos on its Twitter account that capture the cuddly creatures in first class (#KoalaClass), being served a delicious snack of Schweppes and eucalyptus leaves by a flight attendant. Travel Pulse notes, however, that the koalas ultimately flew in the cargo hold (standard for transporting animals) in climate-controlled carriers stocked with eucalyptus trees. Qantas will fly fresh supplies of eucalyptus to Singapore every two weeks throughout the koalas’ stay abroad.

qantas koala


All together now: “Awwww.”

Need More Travel Cuteness?
Shetland Ponies in Sweaters
Puppies and Kittens Make Everything Better — Even Flying

— written by Sarah Schlichter