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Barcelona“What did you think of Barcelona? Did you get pickpocketed?”

It’s been barely a week since I returned from Catalonia, and already I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had to field this kind of question. No one asked, “How was the hotel?” (Haunted, in fact.) Or “What were the football fans like?” (Amiable, surprisingly enough.) Or even “Did you see any of Gaudi’s architecture?” (Yes, though paying to get into the Casa Batllo was probably as close to being pickpocketed as we actually came.) For a lot of people, there seems to be an enduring association between Barcelona and theft.

This is, as far as we could tell, completely unfounded. Before my girlfriend and I left, we were given warnings by my parents, her parents, her grandparents, colleagues, the man behind the counter in the bookshop where we bought our travel guide, the hairdresser and the barista at our favourite coffee shop about the constant threat of robbery on Barcelona’s streets. (The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker kept noticeably quiet on the issue.)

Everybody knew someone who knew someone who had seen a guy getting pickpocketed in Barcelona and thought we should know. When I asked my mom to elaborate, she told me about the time when she had been on the Metro with a friend who had found herself wedged into a doorway by two seemingly polite men, while a group of small children rifled through her handbag, taking her passport, mobile phone and purse. Pressed further about this story, my mom admitted that it had actually taken place in Rome — but, she said, these things could happen anywhere.

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Forewarned is forearmed, and, after hearing countless warnings against leaving valuables in the zippy pockets on the back of our rucksacks, we arrived in Barcelona a little bit tired and very hungry. Our hotel was opposite a Metro station, so we decided to brave the trains in order to get there and drop off our things as quickly as we could. We descended to the turnstiles only to find that the tickets we had just bought were no good. We fought through the crowds to get back to the machines in the corridor, which did not offer English instructions.

We jabbed away at the touch screen for a while as the crowd thickened and swirled around us, trying not to admit to each other that we had no idea what we were doing. More and more people bumped into us. My girlfriend moved her rucksack so that it was on her front. It looked like one of those pregnancy simulating vests. We’d just arrived in the middle of a busy city, we only had the most tenuous grasp of the local language, we were hungry and our feet hurt.

And then a little man appeared and, after finding out through a burst of quick-fire Spanish that we didn’t understand quick-fire Spanish, asked us if we spoke English. We were that obvious. He had very greasy hair and had a short, blonde beard. His jacket was brown and frayed and, in his hand, he had an empty coffee cup with change in it. Uh oh.

The man smiled and pointed out an option on the screen that would take us back to the language page; this would make it easier for us to buy our tickets, he said without a hint of condescension. Then, he said, instead of buying day tickets or singles, we should buy a special ticket that he pointed out. We could use it in any zone in the city, it would be good for the three days that we were there, it was cheaper than a single-day ticket and it would get us to the airport without any trouble on our departure day. We could even get away with only buying one of them if we were sly enough about passing the ticket back over the turnstile to each other when we went through.

We bought the tickets (yes, two of them) and thanked the man for his help. He smiled and shuffled off into the crowd. As soon as he’d gone we both quickly patted down our pockets. Of course, everything was still there. The man was just being helpful and was not, as we had thought, trying to rob us. We felt dreadful because we’d wrongly made up our minds about someone who was only being kind, even though he could have quite easily ignored us.

I wanted to catch up to the man and say something nice, but there was no sign of him. He had gone. We snapped this photo of the stranger before he disappeared:


— written by Josh Thomas

sick woman thermometerI’ll admit this up front: Traveling sick is ill-advised.

But when does sick become too sick to travel? I imagine that most of us have been confronted by this question at one point or another, and if you’re like me, you’ve made the wrong decision: Get on the flight, hop on the train, jump on the ship.

Last week, I ended a four-night cruise awash in worries. Kyle, my teenage nephew, had battled an ugly stomach virus a few days earlier and was back on his feet — and eating like a pig again. But 12 hours before we were slated to get off the ship, I came down with the Plague. My throat became so sore I could barely breathe, my ears were clogged and I was coughing up stuff that appeared to have flaked off the Blob. Fearful that my nephew’s stomach flu was about to rear its ugly head and unable to sleep because of the congestion, I sat up in my bed worrying that there’d be no escape from Port Canaveral, Florida, after daybreak.

Day broke, and I was still feeling lousy. But there was a cause for celebration: It appeared I’d dodged the stomach virus and all its attendant horrors. The two of us finished packing our bags (in silence because I’d lost my voice, though Kyle didn’t seem to mind), then lumbered off the ship and into the central Florida sunshine. I felt woozy as the shuttle bus departed the port, then fell asleep for the 40-minute drive to Orlando’s airport.

Exhausted, lightheaded and achy, I checked in for my flight and soon found another reason to celebrate: I could get on an earlier flight to Philly instead of waiting around the airport for five hours. By this time, Kyle was pretending he didn’t know me; I think he would have FedEx’d me home if he could have. The two of us bumped elbows in farewell (he didn’t want to catch my germs), and he headed toward his flight to Boston.

Traveling While Contagious

Filled with guilt and anxiety over whether I’d make it home in one piece, I entered the aircraft and took my seat. Was it really fair to share my cold (or whatever it was) with everyone else on the plane? How would I feel if someone coughing up God-knows-what sat next to me? Shouldn’t I be lying in bed somewhere with a priest by my side?

Then the cacophony started. Behind me, next to me, even up in business class, passengers were coughing and nose-blowing, almost in harmony. A woman rushed to the bathroom seconds after the pilot told us it was safe to get up and didn’t return for a long, long time.

I slept a bit, but the nonstop hacking was hard to ignore. I got off the plane two hours later feeling sicker than when I got on, and I wondered: Did anyone feel the least remorse about sharing their illness with me?

— written by John Deiner

airport parking garageEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our newsletter.

When you head to the airport for your next flight, don’t just settle for any old spot in the airport parking lot. Where you leave your car can actually help determine how safe it is while you’re out of town.

As Ed Hewitt writes in Nine Ways to Keep Your Car Safe on the Road, “In airport lots, I recommend parking in view of the exit toll booths or parking office if possible, or just as well within view of a shuttle pickup location or kiosk. The increased foot traffic and eyeball count will discourage potential thieves. Well-lit areas are next best; most airport lots have surveillance cameras in place, so making it easier for an attendant to see your car on a grainy camera will help.”

Hewitt goes on to suggest parking with your trunk out, particularly if you’re storing anything in it while you’re gone. Backing into a space may make for a more convenient departure at the end of your trip, but parking nose-first makes your vehicle’s trunk more visible to passersby — and therefore tougher to break into.

Of course, you can make your car an even less appealing target by removing anything that looks remotely valuable, such as E-ZPass transponders, GPS units or iPods. Hide your goodies away in the glove compartment or take them out of the car altogether. And don’t bother trying to artfully arrange jackets or blankets over valuables left on the seat. Thieves are wise to this tactic — it just makes it look like you have something to hide.

See eight more ways to keep your car safe while traveling.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

computer criminalThink twice about revealing travel plans to your Facebook friends; some might be more interested in your vacant home than your vacation photos.

A New Jersey man reportedly used information posted on the Internet to carry out a home burglary against one of his Facebook friends. According to the Express-Times in Lehigh Valley, PA, 36-year-old Steven Pieczynski is accused of breaking into a Newtown, Pennsylvania home on September 27 while the homeowners were traveling. He was arrested yesterday at his place of employment.

Pieczynski, who is Facebook friends with the victims, learned of their upcoming vacation plans over the social networking site. When he found out that his home-owning Internet chums were going out of town, he took the opportunity to strike.

As the break-in was taking place, watchful neighbors noticed a suspicious-looking vehicle parked near the victims’ home. Neighbors recorded the license plate number of the strange car and gave the information to police after learning about the burglary; this led to Pieczynski’s arrest, ultimately proving that a few good neighbors trump several hundred online acquaintances any day of the week.

In a press release issued by the Office of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor, the New Jersey prosecutor handling the case, Anthony P. Kearns, warns travelers to refrain from advertising their vacation plans on Facebook. Says Kearns, “I commend the neighbors who were vigilant and recorded the vehicle information leading to the arrest of the defendant. At the same time, I want to take this opportunity to remind people to never post their vacation plans on any Internet Web site.”

We second that. In Keep Your Home Safe on Vacation, we impart the following tip: “Think twice about posting your detailed vacation plans on Twitter or Facebook — especially if that information is visible to Internet users other than your friends and family (and it probably is). Be careful what you say on your answering machine or voice mail too. Callers don’t need to know that you’re not home — they just need to know that you can’t come to the phone right now.”

If you must share your travel plans on Facebook, put the site’s privacy controls to good use. Manage who views your posts by sorting your Facebook friends into customized groups. For example, you can create a “Family” group of relatives and close buddies in the Privacy Settings section of your Facebook account. Then, when posting a status update on your wall, use the audience-selector dropdown menu to choose the Family group. Only those whom you’ve pegged as family will be able to see what you’ve posted.

— written by Caroline Costello

world map travel travelerWhile I’m not sure I’d call myself a “lazy traveler,” I do like to keep things as simple as possible. After countless road trips and plane rides, I’ve developed a few tips and strategies that will make your next trip more comfortable. These tips work for short or long trips and do not require a degree in rocket science in order to apply them to your travel style.

1. Wear slip-on shoes. Whether you are working your way through airport security or headed out on a long road trip, slip-on shoes make life much more relaxing. At the airport you don’t have to be “that guy” blocking up the security line because he’s untying his shoes. Just make sure you have clean, hole-free socks — and ladies, if it’s summertime, we recommend a fresh pedicure.

Airport Security: Your Questions Answered

2. Books and e-readers are nice, but audio books are better. Carrying an iPod or mp3 player is much easier than lugging around a book or Kindle. On our last flight, my husband and I actually shared headphones, each using one earbud, in order to finish up a book we’d both been listening to in the car via my mp3 player. It was a riveting storyline and our two-hour flight was over in no time.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

3. Always pack a hat. Having a hat is essential to comfortable travel. It not only warms your head, but if necessary it can also be used to cool the neck by tucking hair up into it. Hats shield the eyes from outdoor glare, and can block the light if you’re trying to catch a few Z’s at an airport or on a bus. And if you haven’t washed your hair in a few days? A hat hides a multitude of sins.

Another Reason You Should Always Pack a Hat

4. Bring bills. This one may seem irrelevant in the age of ATM’s and credit cards, but I find it’s always nice to have a little traveling cash on hand in order to tip the cab driver or buy a sweet treat from a street vendor. You might even discover a cool little cash-only restaurant — yes, these establishments still exist, and the smaller the town, the more likely that you’ll stumble across one. Believe me, you don’t want to miss out on the world’s best eggs Benedict just because you didn’t have a little cash in your pocket.

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

5. Keep headache medicine and antacids readily available. No matter how laid-back you are about traveling, there’s bound to be something that causes a little headache or upset stomach along the way. Travel usually comes with a change in diet, which can be tough on the digestive system, and lack of sleep or dehydration can result in a headache. It’s better to be prepared than to have to track down a $10 aspirin in the airport or at a tourist trap.

Avoiding the Airplane Cold

— written by Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer, a journalist and freelance writer from Northern Colorado. She is also the Mayor of HeidiTown.com, a blog about Colorado events and festivals.

There’s a store in Alabama that’s as big as a city block. It’s called the Unclaimed Baggage Center, and it sells the forsaken contents of lost luggage. Most bags lost by the airlines are eventually returned to their owners. But the missing suitcases that end up on the shelves of the Unclaimed Baggage Center likely lacked sufficient identification.

That piece of paper you grabbed from the airline check-in counter on which you scribbled your address might not be good enough. First, if your bag is lost while you’re on your way to your vacation destination, you’ll want it shipped to your hotel — not to the guy bringing in your mail at your empty house. Additionally, many travel experts advise against revealing your address on your luggage, as this could make your home a target for robbery while you’re on the road.

The solution is to use a smart luggage tag that does more than just display an address and phone number. Below are three high-tech luggage tags that have the power to transform your trip if your luggage gets lost.

What to Do When Your Luggage Is Lost

ReboundTAG Microchip Bag Tags are printed with a barcode that airline personnel can scan in order to identify your luggage and view your itinerary. (The barcode technology isn’t available at all airports.) If a person who doesn’t have access to scanning technology finds your lost luggage, he or she can enter your tag number on the ReboundTAG Web site, and the system will notify you by text message or e-mail. A Microchip Bag Tag costs 34.99 British pounds (about $55.80 as of this posting) and comes with one year’s membership to the ReboundTAG system. Buy it at www.reboundtag.com.

Like the ReboundTAG Microchip Bag Tags, SuperSmartTags feature a code that anyone can use to report your bag online. Once the code for your bag is submitted, you’ll receive a text message, e-mail or phone call explaining that your luggage has been found. Enter your itinerary on the SuperSmartTag site and airport staff will be able to view your travel plans and forward your luggage to your next destination. SuperSmartTag retails for $14.99 AUD (about $15.95 as of this posting) and comes with a three-year membership to the SuperSmartTag system. Buy it at www.supersmarttag.com. (Or win a free one. See below.)

Retriever TagsMagellan’s Retriever Tags
These tags aren’t outfitted with special codes or microchips. But they’re simple enough to work. The vinyl tag encapsulates instructions written in eight languages (English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, French and German) that tell baggage agents to check the itinerary inside your bag and send your luggage to your next destination, as opposed to shipping it back to your home address while you’re en route to Tahiti. Buy it at www.magellans.com for $8.95.

— written by Caroline Costello

travel healthWhat’s the number-one way to stave off loathsome airplane colds, stomach-turning viruses and other scourges of the traveling set? That’s the question we posed to our well-traveled readers, who, in response, posted a cornucopia of practical health tips on our blog earlier this month.

As promised, we’re awarding a GermBana scarf, which is made of germ-annihilating antibacterial fabric, to the reader who submitted the best travel health tip. Congratulations to Nick, who shared an excellent piece of advice that reminds us why it’s great to make a date with the doc:

“I totally agree with several of the previous posts, but would need to top my list with a visit to a doctor — preferably a travel specialist — prior to taking a long flight. This literally saved my mom’s life: she couldn’t get an apt. with her regular [primary care physician], so she visited a travel specialist. During the check-up [she] mentioned a slight pain in her leg — only hours later she was in the hospital due to a blood clot that the doc had found. The trans-Atlantic flight she had planned needed to be postponed, but I can’t say how glad I am she saw that doc!”

Blood clots caused by immobility and cramped conditions on planes, also known as Deep Vein Thrombosis, are a serious risk for air travelers. In 2007, the New York Times reported on a study that connects flying with an increased risk in D.V.T.: “Life-threatening blood clots and flying have been linked for more than 50 years, but a new study of business travelers confirms the risk, particularly for those who take long flights or fly frequently. … People who fly four hours or more, the study found, have three times the risk of developing clots compared with periods when they did not travel.”

As Nick says, it’s smart to visit a doctor prior to your flight if you have a history of developing clots or if you have symptoms that could indicate blood clotting; these include unexplained pain, swelling and redness (most often in the legs). Additionally, travelers should see a doctor to get any immunizations that are required or recommended before visiting certain destinations. For more information, read Travel Immunizations.

We received plenty more ingenious tips for staying hale and hardy on the road. (Picking a winner was tough.) Our readers revealed clever on-the-go cold remedies, explained how to avoid “the dirtiest object around” and extolled the virtues of sanitizing wipes; read the tips here.

What’s your best travel health tip? Share it in the comments!

— written by Caroline Costello

germbana scarf womanNobody likes being sick — and it’s even worse when you’re holed up in an impersonal hotel room thousands of miles away from your doctor, your mom’s cure-all chicken soup and your own comfy bed.

Unfortunately for travelers, public places like airports, train stations and hotels are prime places to pick up germs. The potential for illness grows even higher when you board an airplane; close quarters and ultra-dry air mean that “colds may be more than 100 times more likely to be transmitted on a plane than during normal daily life on the ground,” Ed Hewitt reports in Avoiding the Airplane Cold.

We all know that using antibacterial gel and washing your hands frequently can help minimize your chance of spending your vacation sneezing, coughing or hunched miserably over a toilet bowl. But we want to hear other, more creative ways that you stay healthy while traveling. Share yours, and you could win a GermBana scarf, made of an innovative antibacterial fabric that kills germs on contact.

Just leave your best travel health tip in the comments below by August 19 at 11:59 p.m. ET. (Editor’s Note: We’ve extended the deadline to give more readers a chance to win!) The person who offers the most creative, practical advice for staying healthy on the road will win the scarf. Be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you comment.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

roller coasterAs if amusement park rides weren’t scary enough, now comes word of two incidents — one fatal — over the past week involving thrill-seekers in New Jersey and Ohio.

First, the good news: According to a report in the Asbury Park Press, your “odds of being seriously injured at one of the United States’ 400 fixed-site amusement parks are 1-in-9 million.” It goes on to quote a rep from the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions as saying 280 million people visit U.S. parks annually, taking 1.7 billion rides.

The Asbury Park story was printed in reaction to the death of an 11-year-old girl on June 4 at Morey’s Pier in Wildwood, N.J. The girl, who was visiting the park on a class trip, fell almost 100 feet from a Ferris wheel. No fault has been determined, though officials say the 156-foot Giant Wheel recently passed state inspections and no mechanical problems were found. The next day, seven riders on the WildCat ride at Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park were injured when a car failed to brake at the end of the ride, causing it to slam into another loaded car. The injuries were minor.

The back-to-back incidents are coincidental, of course. There’s no telling right now how the girl fell from the Ferris wheel gondola (Did she stand up? Did the door unlatch unexpectedly?), but it’s frightening nonetheless. I’m an amusement park junkie, and every time I’m strapped into a ride I wonder if I’m going to make it off alive. That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

I draw the line at rides at carnivals and fairs — something that arrived on a truck the day before and was assembled in the predawn hours just screams “Avoid!” to me. And I’m never quite sure if I can trust that creepy dude at the controls.

That said, good Jersey boy that I am, I’ve been to Morey’s Pier dozens of times, and I’ve never thought twice about jumping on the attractions (that Ferris wheel has always been too tall for me, however). I also frequent the boardwalk rides up the coast in Seaside Heights. You may know it as home to the “Jersey Shore” crew. I know it as home to the scariest ride I’ve ever been on.

It’s a roller coaster tucked into the nether regions of Seaside’s Casino Pier. It’s not tall or particularly fast, but it always looks rusty to me. The cars are cramped and don’t seem particularly well affixed to the track. The coaster’s metal frame shakes when you’re going up the first hill, and the chain pulling the cars makes an ungodly drone. Each turn at the top makes you feel as if you’re going to be dumped into the ocean, which is perhaps 70 feet or so below. The ride ends with a screech and, I swear, the smell of burning rubber.

I have to go on it once a year, or my summer isn’t complete.

— written by John Deiner

hotel door do not disturb signEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

We know that travelers judge their hotel rooms on a wide variety of criteria — like how great the view is (or isn’t), how comfy the mattress feels, and whether the Wi-Fi is a) functional and b) free. But did you know that your hotel room — specifically, where it’s located — could also determine how safe you are during your stay?

Here’s the scoop, from our own Hotel Safety Tips: “Don’t accept a room on the ground floor if you can avoid it. Many safety experts recommend staying somewhere between the third and sixth floors — where rooms are high enough to be difficult to break into, but not so high that they’re out of the reach of most fire engine ladders.”

It’s not something travelers should obsess over, but hotel break-ins and fires do happen — so taking a few precautions to safeguard yourself is just common sense. Before you book, call the hotel to find out what it does to protect its guests. Surveillance cameras, round-the-clock security staff and elevators that won’t take guests to upper floors without a keycard are all good safety measures to look out for.

For more ways to stay secure on your next trip, check out Money Safety and Seven Ways to Keep Your Stuff Safe When You Fly.

— written by Sarah Schlichter