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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Catch up on our favorite travel articles and videos of the week.

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How GPS Is Messing with Our Minds
It’s hard to imagine navigating the world without a GPS these days, but this article from Time notes that relying so heavily on such devices harms our ability to make our own “cognitive map” — i.e., to get a clear sense of where we are in the context of our surroundings. This sometimes has tragic results (such as people following their GPS unit’s instructions into dangerous mountain terrain). Is it time for good old-fashioned maps to make a comeback?

Forget Your Passport; You’ll Need a DNA Sample to Enter Kuwait
Well, here’s an alarming idea. The New York Daily News reports that anyone who wants to travel to Kuwait will soon have to provide either “a swab of saliva or a few drops of blood” as a DNA sample. Though the Kuwaiti government promises that the samples won’t be tested for disease or otherwise infringe on property, it’s easy to see how this could go wrong (and make passport control lines even longer…).

Tipping Is Really Out of Control Now
Christopher Elliott of Elliott.org reports that more and more employees are asking for gratuities these days, including people we wouldn’t normally think to tip (such as tow truck drivers, airline ticket agents and even opticians). In a poll at the end of the article, about 70 percent of respondents say they’d like to have tipping restricted or banned by law. Do you agree?

Cruising Through the End of the World
Pacific Standard offers a fascinating look at the Northwest Passage, the famed pathway through the Canadian Arctic that intrepid explorers once suffered and died trying to find. These days you can explore it yourself aboard a cruise ship, seeing remote villages and looking out for polar bears.

‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and Travel
The New York Times interviews Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestseller “Eat, Pray, Love” — inspiration for a collection of essays called “Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It.” Gilbert reveals her favorite moment in the new book, shares her future travel plans and explains why her mother started traveling late in life.

Delta Is First Airline to Use New Baggage Tracking Technology
Could this be the beginning of the end of lost luggage? Conde Nast Traveler reports that Delta will start using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to track checked bags by the end of this year. Delta claims that this system is 99.9 percent effective, more so than the current system of barcoded tags and scanners. We’re crossing our fingers.

Why I Travel the World Alone
Travel + Leisure features an essay by a hardcore adventure traveler (“During a recent trip to Chad … I spent 19 days sleeping in the great outdoors — and going to the loo there, too — while crossing the Sahara Desert. I showered twice in 21 days”) who finds incredible rewards in the challenges and freedoms of traveling alone. We bet you’ll be inspired by her story too.

This week’s featured video comes from JetBlue, which turned frowns upside down on a recent flight by giving away discounts off a future trip every time a baby cried on the plane. Happy Mother’s Day!

10 Things to Do Before You Travel
What Not to Do When Checking a Bag

— written by Sarah Schlichter

tip coins restaurantEvery 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.

One of the most enduring travel conundrums is figuring out whom to tip and how much. Should you tell your Moroccan cabbie to keep the change, or tack an extra 10 percent onto your New Zealand restaurant bill? (The answers, in case you’re keeping score at home: yes and no.)

If you’re feeling clueless in a new country, it may seem only logical to ask whether a tip is appropriate. Resist the urge, writes Caroline Costello in Tips for Tipping Abroad:

“A common mistake made by travelers is asking their service person if he or she requires a tip. Not only does this present a conflict of interest to a cash-strapped service person who doesn’t normally take tips, but in countries where saying what you mean is not the social norm, a clueless traveler may end up stiffing a polite waiter or bellhop. For example, in India, a service person whose income is mostly generated by tips may say that he or she requires no gratuity out of modesty and good manners. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tip if it’s the acceptable practice in your destination!”

A good guidebook will always offer advice on how much to tip and under which circumstances; you can also find this sort of information on sites like the Magellan’s Worldwide Tipping Guide. But if you’ve arrived in your destination unprepared, you can ask about tipping norms, as long as you don’t ask your waiter. The staff at the local visitor center or your hotel front desk should be able to assist you.

For more help, see our guides to Hotel Tipping and Tipping Etiquette.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

waiter plates server restaurantEvery 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.

Your burger is cold, the service is sluggish and your gum-chewing waitress snaps your head off when you ask for extra ketchup. When you have a restaurant experience this bad, is it ever okay to show your displeasure by stiffing your server on the tip?

That’s the question we asked Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of famous etiquette expert Emily Post, in an interview about all things tipping. Here’s her take:

“You should never let your money talk for you. If you get good service, in addition to leaving a good tip, you would want to thank your server, bellboy, etc. When it goes the other way, you still should leave the customary 15 percent. If you had horrendous service and it was the service provider’s fault, some people might go as low as 10 percent. But we suggest that you leave 15 percent and then immediately speak to a manager to express your dissatisfaction. Say that you’re unhappy with how you were treated and that you’re reluctant to return after such an experience. That will speak volumes to a manager.”

The idea of paying someone for lousy service is anathema to some travelers, but personally, I’m with Post on this one. Waitstaff, bellhops and other people in the service industry depend on tips to supplement paltry salaries — and I rarely get upset enough over poor service to harm someone’s livelihood. Besides, speaking with a manager is arguably more effective than withholding a tip; he or she has the authority to encourage better behavior or take action against the server if necessary. Finally, remember that tips are sometimes pooled among multiple members of the staff (such as busboys or bartenders), so in stiffing your waiter you could also be penalizing people who did nothing wrong.

You can read the rest of our interview with Lizzie Post in Tipping Etiquette: A Guide for Travelers.

Do you leave a tip for lackluster service? Vote in our poll!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

tip restaurant coins eurosEvery 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.

Last week, we asked our readers to share their best tipping advice for a chance to win a Ritz-Carlton spa pack. It was a tough decision, but I’m pleased to announce that our winner is Susan, who offered the following words of wisdom:

“I found a great tipping app for iPhones called ‘Tipping Tips,’ which gives advice on tipping in over 100 countries. It’s got general guidelines and specific information on everyday situations like taxis and hotels, plus info on less common stuff like safari guides in Africa. There’s a calculator that knows what country you’re in and automatically calculates the correct percentage — very helpful since I hate doing math in restaurants!”

I love this advice because it deals with one of the biggest challenges for any traveler: the wide variation in tipping customs around the world. And like Susan, I’m allergic to math, so anything that will do calculations for me is guaranteed to make my trip go more smoothly. It’s definitely worth the $0.99 it’ll cost you for the app.

Congratulations, Susan! And thanks to everyone else who offered their own tipping suggestions; you can read them all in the comments of the original post. Need more guidance? Check out Tipping Etiquette, our Q&A with the great-great-granddaughter of manners maven Emily Post.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

 spa packI’m a serious budget traveler. On the road, my accommodations of choice typically involve shared bathrooms, views of brick walls and tube TV’s that get three to five channels. But on a recent trip business to Colorado, I had the good fortune of staying at the Ritz-Carlton, Denver — a far cry from the moldy basement apartments and bargain-priced B&B’s to which I am accustomed.

The hotel is wonderful, and it definitely lives up to that song “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which plays on repeat in all the elevators. (Okay, it doesn’t, but I think it should.) At the beginning of my stay, I put great effort into finding something wrong with the Ritz, thus proving that luxury hotels are a big rip-off and that I am a genius for unearthing $60-a-night centrally located rooms while evading bed bug infestations and burglary.

But there was nothing wrong with the Ritz. Service was impeccable. Hotel staff smiled at me as if I were an adorable kitten. The sushi bar menu didn’t include anything vegetarian, but the chef insisted on creating a customized vegetable roll just for me, which he promptly served on the house. I even looked under the bathroom sink and on top of the shelves in the closet for dust; there was none. I was beginning to see the point of paying $300 per night for a hotel room. But there was one little problem (and it wasn’t the Ritz’s fault).

As a newbie luxury hotel guest, I couldn’t figure out whom to tip and whom not to tip. I had this nagging feeling that I should hand a folded bill to every person who said “Good evening,” held open the door or dispensed advice on what to see in Denver — and this would be a lot of people. I visited the ATM and stuffed my purse with one-dollar bills. I felt like I was on my way to a strip club.

In Hotel Tipping, we recommend tipping the valet $1 to $2. Good to know. But at the Ritz, at least three people were involved in getting us into our vehicle each time we needed it: one guy called for the car, another drove the vehicle to the front of the hotel and a third staff member opened the car doors for us. This process caused me much anxiety. I frantically stuffed bills into everyone’s hand, afraid I would neglect to tip someone, thus unleashing untold karmic retribution upon myself.

We asked, and it turns out valet staff members pool their tips at the end of the day, so there’s no need to go crazy throwing money at everyone in a uniform standing near the car. This piece of information was quite helpful, and now I’m on the hunt for even more tipping tips!

Share your best advice on tipping in the comments below, and you could win a swanky Ritz-Carlton travel spa pack (pictured above).The person who shares the most creative, practical tipping tip by March 22 will win the prize. Be sure to include a valid e-mail address when you comment.

–written by Caroline Costello