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bangkok skytrainWe all know that many of the world’s largest metropolitan areas — New York, London, Tokyo — have such comprehensive public transportation systems that you wouldn’t even think about renting your own car.

Luckily for the expense-averse, this list includes much of Europe. Not only do cities such as Berlin and Barcelona have comprehensive subway and bus systems in town, you can easily connect to nearby attractions in the countryside, making day trips more accessible.

But what about those smaller cities, the places that — at first glance — might seem to require a rental vehicle to make your vacation worthwhile? While I’m not averse to getting a car when it’s a necessity (in, say, Los Angeles), I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past few years by being able to go car-free in some locations you might not expect.

Miami, Florida
To me, South Beach always personified Miami — and to get the full feel, there’s nothing like tooling past its art deco architecture in an equally retro rental (preferably a convertible). But hip neighborhoods such as Wynwood, Brickell Village and the Design District have made staying downtown more appealing — and public transportation options such as the Metromover and Miami Trolley mean you won’t miss much. Best of all? Both are free.

Where You Can Go: Bayside Market Place, Mary Brickell Village, Bicentennial Park, Museum Park (home to the new Perez Art Museum), and American Airlines Arena are all on the Metromover route (you can reach Wynwood and the Design District easily by bus from the Adrienne Arsht Center). Trolleys can take you to Marlins Park, Coral Gables and, yes, Miami Beach.

Where You Can’t: You’ll still need a car to spot alligators in the Everglades or catch a Key West sunset.

Train Travel Deals Around the World

Bangkok, Thailand
This busy Asian city has traffic jams so notorious that a separate class of vehicle has emerged to weave in and out of them (tuk tuks). Its elevated Skytrain has signs in English as well as air-conditioning, a must if you’re not used to the humidity. Also consider the Chao Phraya river, which winds through Bangkok; it’s often the quickest route between two places. Water taxis and traditional khlong (canal) boats are available.

Where You Can Go: Wat Arun, Grand Palace and Wat Prakeaw, Jim Thompson’s House, Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Khao San Road (if you want to mix with other tourists).

Where You Can’t: The famous World War II site, the bridge over the River Kwai, is in Kanchanaburi, about 90 minutes from Bangkok. While buses do run there, you’re better off hiring a driver or guide. Whatever you do, don’t take the train; it’s a local, meaning the conditions are basic (you’re likely to share a wooden seat with chickens), and it can take up to five hours.

San Antonio, Texas
If you’re deep in the heart of Texas, you expect cities with suburbs that sprawl for miles (we’re talking to you, Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth) — which is what makes San Antonio such a pleasant surprise. The Riverwalk, originally a WPA project, has been extended so it hooks up with the 10-mile Mission Reach trail. Rent bikes in trendy King William and make a day of it. The central hub of the Riverwalk is an attraction unto itself, with restaurants and bars aplenty (boat rides are fun too).

Where You Can Go: All five of San Antonio’s missions, including the Alamo; Pearl Brewery, San Antonio Art Museum, restaurants and bars.

Where You Can’t: The vineyards of nearby Hill Country require external transportation (preferably a private driver so you can taste at will).

St. Petersburg, Russia
The subway system in St. Petersburg is a major tourist sight for a reason. Conceived during Stalin’s tenure, the stations were considered “the people’s palaces” and given the design to match. You don’t even have to have a destination in mind to enjoy the elaborate chandeliers, marble floors and columns, and Soviet-era symbols found along the lines (fun fact: this is also the world’s deepest subway system).

Where You Can Go: Nevsky Prospekt, Church of the Spilled Blood, Hermitage, major theaters (for operas and ballet), and Peter and Paul Fortress. Peter the Great’s grand palace, Peterhof, is reachable by hydrofoil.

Where You Can’t: Catherine’s Palace, with the famous Amber Room, is in Pushkin (about 15 miles away) and is only open limited hours for people not in groups. It’s best to go with a guide.

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Seattle, Washington
Known for its eco ethic, Seattle should have a better public transportation system than it does (while a light rail connects SEA-TAC airport with downtown, it regularly draws complaints for its geographical limitations). Luckily, the bus routes make up for it.

Where You Can Go: Pike Place Market and original Starbucks, Pioneer Square, Space Needle and Seattle Center (home to EMP Museum, the Pacific Science Center and Chilhuly Garden and Glass), both stadiums, Capitol Hill, Alki Beach (by water taxi), Bainbridge Island (by Washington State Ferry).

Where You Can’t: To go hiking in any of the mountain range parks that surround Seattle — Mt. Rainier, the Cascades or the Olympics — you’ll need a car.

– written by Chris Gray Faust

van soye family 2003Most young American adults have a limited “understanding of the world beyond their country’s borders,” according to the National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literary Study.

Understanding geography is something travelers take for granted. It’s both a requirement and a side effect of travel. For Sandy and Darren Van Soye, it is a passion.

In 2003, the couple took their daughters, then ages 10 and 12, on a nearly five-month trip around the world. Through e-mails to their teachers, the family shared the voyage with the entire school. Classmates loved the missives from across the globe, and the experience changed the Van Soye daughters.

“Both girls came home understanding where places are and that much of the world lives differently than they do in California. They had more confidence and were also not afraid of interacting with adults,” said Sandy.

Years later, the couple read that 29 percent of U.S. 18- to 24-year-olds could not find the Pacific Ocean on an unlabeled map. “We decided then and there to find a way to give back as we travel, to hopefully get kids around the globe excited about geography,” said Darren.

van soyes 2012The couple saved for seven years to take a 14-month trip to 50 countries on six continents. Now 229 days into their trip, they have covered 36,000 miles, hiking to some of the most remote places on Earth between visits to cities and towns. Lest you think the extensive trip is just a scheme to acquire bounteous frequent flier miles, the Van Soyes stay “close to the ground” using local public transportation (bus, train, ferry) whenever possible. Their goal is to experience the world more closely and minimize their carbon footprint.

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Far from being just a vacation, however, the Van Soyes are using their excursion as a “teaching moment” for 55,000+ schoolchildren across the globe. Some 850 educators from 20 countries are following the Van Soyes’ journey with their students on the couple’s Web site, Trekking the Planet. There are also 300 or more “armchair travelers,” many of whom are fellow cruisers (the Van Soyes, avid cruisers, have incorporated five Princess cruises into their itinerary so far).

The couple provides weekly newsletters with a country-specific educational module, an article or two and often a video. “The goal is to establish a two-way link with students where they can witness first-hand the world ‘out there’ and even pose and receive answers to their questions in near real time,” said Sandy. The materials are free and accessible via their Web site as well as Facebook (Facebook.com/TrekkingPlanet) and Twitter (@TrekkingPlanet).

They’ve visited schools in American Samoa, Thailand, Laos, Nepal and Latvia so far. “The schools in Laos were some of the most remote places we have visited – the buildings were made of bamboo and had dirt floors. But to see the kids’ faces as we talked about our journey made the trip worth it! During our visits, we always ask the students questions that we received from the classrooms that are following us,” said Sandy.

“Technology has changed so much since our last trip in 2003. Last time, we used a stylus-based Casio Cassiopeia to write our e-mails and resize our photos. We used Internet cafes to send the e-mails along with our photos. Now we can do the whole thing with our smartphones,” said Darren.

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The Van Soyes are doing their part — first for their children, now for the world’s children — to broaden the understanding of young people, helping them prepare for a future that is, as the Roper report says, increasingly global.

– written by Jodi Thompson

cnngo hitlerThere are seemingly endless tips on how not to offend the locals while traveling. We know that tank tops and shorts won’t fly past the flying buttresses of Notre Dame. We know not to leave a tip on the table while dining out in Tokyo if we don’t want to be pursued out of the restaurant to have our money returned by an insulted server.

We try to familiarize ourselves with local customs. Pack scarves and slip-on shoes. Make an effort to blend in. (See our brand-new 12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place for advice on this front.) We make this concerted effort not to offend out of respect for cultures different from our own. However, there are times when we, as the outsider, may feel awkward, insulted or even threatened by local customs or behavior.

Imagine walking through a mall in central Bangkok where a popular store sports a nearly life-sized doll that resembles the hate-child of Ronald McDonald and Hitler. Young people imitate the faux Fuhrer’s salute, posing for photographs with it. (Check out CNNGO.com for more photos.) They wear T-shirts bearing cartoonish images of the Nazi dictator as a pink Teletubby, in a panda outfit or with the fast-food chain mascot’s red bouffant hairdo and yellow jumpsuit. To Western eyes, it’s offensive. It’s disrespectful. It’s also ignorant.

Similarly boorish is hefting a beer with a Buddha-tattooed arm right outside that very same shopping mall in Bangkok. In fact, Thailand is considering a ban on tourists getting religious tattoos because we fail to understand how offensive it is to drink alcohol, party and misbehave with such sacred ink showing.

Fair enough. We can respect that. But some things make us bristle — like being rebuffed if, as a woman, we try to sit down alone at a cafe in Morocco, or dancing the night away in a Jamaica club before we realize the lyrics to the music encourage homophobic violence.

Culture Shock: Outside the Comfort Zone

How do you respond when you find yourself at odds with local ways or laws?

– written by Jodi Thompson

old bangkok inn lotusHere’s the answer to last week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel quizzes by subscribing to our blog.

We have a winner! The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is 9,000 THB per night (we also accepted $226 USD as an answer, as both rates are given on the hotel’s Web site). Dorinda, who gave the first correct answer, has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

The room pictured was the Lotus Suite at the Old Bangkok Inn in Bangkok, Thailand. It’s the largest of the accommodation options at this intimate guesthouse, offering two bedrooms and a private garden with a lounge and outdoor tub. The Old Bangkok Inn is located in the Banglamphu district of the city, a haven for affordable accommodation.

To check rates at other properties in Thailand’s bustling capital city, see Bangkok Hotels.

– written by Sarah Schlichter