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Have you ever tried to tell the story of something exciting or funny that happened on vacation, but you fell flat? Don’t feel bad, says storytelling coach Esther Choy, the founder and president of the Leadership Story Lab in Chicago. It happens to all of us.

esther choy skiing


Taking a break during a family ski vacation in Park City, Utah, Choy coached us on how to be a better storyteller when sharing our own travel tales.

Independent Traveler: In general, do you think most people are good or bad at storytelling?
Esther Choy:
Most people have wonderful stories buried in them. But there are a few things they can do to tell them better. What makes a novel a page-turner is that at every critical juncture of a plot, readers find out a bit more about the characters, and yet there is another cliffhanger. So the novel is intriguing their audiences.

You don’t need to handcuff yourself to recounting events as they unfolded per their chronological order. Telling stories involves an intriguing beginning, a riveting middle and a satisfying end. This three-act formula can generate an hour-plus-long story, or it can be a 30-second experience.

And you don’t have to be a superhero to tell great stories. Sure, if you’ve just climbed Kilimanjaro while hoisting your aging parents and barely walking toddler twins along, you’re a superhero. But a compelling tale can be as seemingly mundane as getting through a quarter of your reading list during a laid-back beach vacation. A great story relates the central theme of your story to a universality, a shared human experience.

IT: What other components make up a good travel tale?
EC:
You have to balance indulgences with an experience your listeners can relate to. Of course, if you’ve discovered the best ramen in the world, by all means, share that. But if your tale is mostly about touting one indulgence after another, then you’re creating a “Facebook updates” experience for your audience. Yawn!

A good travel tale has a well-balanced mix of new, pleasurable discovery and universal experience. Let’s say that after discovering your favorite ramen restaurant in Honolulu, you went overboard and ate ramen every day for five days. Then you had indigestion and didn’t love the ramen place as much. As you wrapped up your tale, you reflected on how even a little bit of self-restraint could have perfected the whole experience. In this story, discovering the best ramen is the indulgence. Exercising more self-discipline in order to preserve a wonderful experience is the universality.

IT: Before you start telling a story, what should you think through to make sure the story is well received?
EC:
Always keep your audience’s preference in mind. With an adventure story, some might be more intrigued by how you arrived at the best whitewater rafting part of the Grand Canyon. Some might wonder how you justified to your boss that taking a month off for this experience would make you a better employee.

No matter the preference, treat the storytelling more like a dialogue, implanting hooks for questions, rather than doling out one long monologue. In my upcoming book Let the Story Do the Work, I talk about how “aggressive listening” is a prerequisite for good storytelling. The main idea is that you want to incorporate what is important to your audience as you’re telling your stories.

IT: What should you do if you notice that your listener is losing interest?
EC:
It’s important to pay attention to signs of waning interest. They’re smiling too long. They’ve stopped mirroring your body language. They’re looking toward the door or at their phones.

Cliffhangers help. And if you’re telling a travel story in an informal setting, know that your story doesn’t have to be a monologue. Take advantage of natural back-and-forth of dialogue to break things up. Ask a rhetorical question — “Guess what happened next?” And use humor to re-engage interest.

IT: Does it help to show visuals, such as photographs or souvenirs?
EC:
Visuals can help, but be highly selective. A picture can speak a thousand words, but only if you’ve chosen a good one. For example, my husband and his friend are very advanced skiers. One day, they ventured to the peak of Red Pine Bowl in Park City. Once they summited, they saw a sign that said “You Can Die.”

As they shared their stories over dinner, all they said in the beginning was, “We HAVE to show you this sign.” And they refused to say anything else. This was highly effective because it left us wondering, what was that sign? Why wouldn’t they say anything else?

you can die sign


IT: Okay, you got us. What happened next?
EC:
On a ski lift, my husband Bernhard and his friend Nik met a local skier who recommended that they hike up to the top because the view was worth it. It was already toward the end of their day and they were tired. But then they thought, what the heck? Just as they reached the top, though, they saw the sign.

At this point during our dinner, Bernhard and Nik paused. With a smirk, Bernhard said, “This sign got me thinking…” And then his voice trailed off. Nik chimed in, “I wondered what would happen if…” His voice trailed off too.

I have witnessed Nik promised his wife not to do any double black hills with a cliff or anything “too risky” on several occasions. His wife and I looked at each other, and waited for more in full anticipation.

“So we took a left, followed the trail and went back down.” And that was that!

As you can see, in this little story no one got hurt and no one died. No one even attempted any highly risky act. The only highlight was the sign. Although the sign was a bit dramatic in its messaging, there wasn’t any other dramatic element in the whole story. But Bernhard and Nik know their wives well. They made full use of anticipation, pauses and dialoguing to tell this fun tale.

And by the way, the view was so worth it.

Check out more travel interviews!

What’s your favorite travel story?

8 Things Not to Bring Home from a Trip
The 6 Qualities of Highly Effective Travelers

— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

In 2008, Sean P. Finelli left behind his Wall Street career to move to Rome, where he soon became a popular tour guide with the nickname “the Roman guy.” Finelli decided to direct his passion for Rome into a new tour company that would emphasize unique and immersive experiences across Italy. And thus The Roman Guy was born.

brandon shaw and sean finelli


The company is run by Finelli and co-owner Brandon Shaw, who work with their team to offer a variety of city tours and trip planning services. We reached out to Finelli and Shaw to discover what advice they’d give first-time Italy travelers, which regions of the country don’t get enough love and which Italian foods visitors must try on their next trip.

IndependentTraveler.com: What are some of the most unique tours The Roman Guy offers in Italy?
Sean:
The most unique tour must be our Colosseum Underground tour, which we’ve titled Colosseum Dungeons Tour. You get access to areas that nobody else has access to. Think about the 30,000 visitors that enter the building in the summer. Only about 300 get to visit the dungeons. That’s pretty unique, and people love it.

Brandon: Our E-bike Rome Tour is a strong second. Imagine beating the heat and covering three times as much of the city as a walking tour and not even breaking a sweat. We are super-passionate about green travel and have now created a way to not only see the whole city in three hours but also add zero carbon emission in doing it.

IT: Which region in Italy deserves a little more love? Why?
Sean:
Most people would pick areas like Puglia or Sicily, but I’ll go with Lazio. Yes, Lazio. Everyone goes to Rome, the capital of the region, but after that people are gone. There are amazing nearby towns like Frascati, Marino, Castel Gandolfo and Tivoli, plus beaches like Sperlonga. You can enjoy sunset beach parties in Fregene or a relaxing and luxurious holiday in Ponza. Outside of Rome, Lazio is a locals’ paradise that outside visitors could really give a little bit more love.

Brandon: My pick would be Umbria, a region in central Italy. People rarely visit Umbria on their first trip to Italy. Umbria is usually discovered when people come back on their second or third trip and are looking for something new. I say come to Umbria during your first trip to Italy — you will not regret it. Within Umbria, you have some beautiful historic cities to explore like Orvieto, “dying cities” like Civita di Bagnoregio (which only has 17 official residents) and an amazing waterfall that makes you feel like you are in a South American rain forest. And all of this is within a two-hour drive of Rome!

5 Less Visited Churches in Rome

IT: What advice would you give someone planning his or her first trip to Italy?
Sean:
Be clear about what you want to get out of the trip. Remember that the more you “see” the less you’ll actually “see.” What I mean is that you need to stop and smell the Italian sunflowers. Don’t cram so much in just to cross it off the bucket list. Make time for sitting down, relaxing and chatting with the locals. Make time for three-hour lunches. I went to Puglia for 10 days with no itinerary and it was amazing. We stopped to jump off cliffs into the water, had amazing lunches and stopped in cool-looking towns. Italy has so much that you will alway find something else to do.

Brandon: Doing a good amount of research before your trip will go a long way in making your trip more memorable. Nobody wants to waste precious time waiting in lines, so purchase your tickets ahead of time and skip the lines. Buy your train tickets in advance so you don’t have the stress of trying to find a spot on a train last minute. Look into some restaurants that you might want to visit, so you don’t end up in the typical tourist traps. Or just use The Roman Guy and we’ll do all the heavy lifting for you!

dolomites italy


IT: Are there places in Italy that you haven’t visited yet but would like to explore?
Sean:
The Dolomites. Like most travelers, I am always intrigued by photography and the Dolomites appear to offer some great adventure tourism: this massive jagged mountain range popping up from the rolling hills. What’s not to love?

Brandon: Val d’Aosta. It’s the area on the border with France. I haven’t been there but have heard that the views are amazing, as you are so close to the French Alps. I am also an avid wine enthusiast, and Val d’Aosta is renowned for their excellent, crisp white wines that suit the northern climate perfectly.

IT: Beyond pizza, pasta and gelato, which dish should every Italy traveler try?
Sean:
Isn’t that all Italy produces? I personally recommend fish. Italy is a peninsula with plenty of seafood. It’s hard to recommend a particular dish, but if you are within a short drive of the sea, eat seafood. People going to Rome often want carbonara and Amatriciana, but Rome is a seafood city. We’re 20 mins from saltwater accessible via the Tiber River. Rome’s speciality is salt-crusted sea bass. They say it dates back to Roman times.

Brandon: This is a tough question since the array of food in Italy is so diverse depending on the region. We’ve actually just recently created an interactive Italy food map to inspire foodies coming to Italy. Instead of eating something other than pasta, travelers should do some research, and they will discover that there are many kinds of pasta dishes that they have never heard of. A great example is my favorite Roman pasta dish: fettuccine in a tomato sauce used to make a delicacy with oxtail. It is so good it will bring tears to your eyes!

IT: Besides Italy, what are your favorite travel destinations?
Sean:
It’s hard to say this out loud since I sell Italy, but Greece is my vacation spot. The problem with Italy for me is my mind is always at work. Italy is my office. Greece offers decent food and great views. I love the shabby roads and how Greece has maintained some authentic charm. I also love how much elevation you’ll find on the small islands. There is so much to do in Greece and so much to see. The Greeks are also extremely proud and eager to share their history.

Brandon: When not discovering new hidden gems in Italy, you will usually find me in the French Alps. The mountain air is invigorating and allows you to reset. We stay in little mountain villages where you get fresh milk from the cows that morning that is still warm, and fresh cheese that was just made as well. Staying in places like these allow you to change the tempo and just savor life more. I also love snowboarding so it’s perfect in the wintertime, because you can access the slopes directly from your log cabin.

Check out more travel interviews!

11 Best Italy Experiences
25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

Imagine Costa Rica, and you probably picture lush rain forests, smoking volcanos and exotic birds flitting through the trees. But while this image isn’t inaccurate, a local expert named Maricruz Pereira knows that there’s much more to this friendly Central American country.

maricruz pereira


Pereira is the general manager and co-owner of Unique Adventures, which specializes in customized experiences and tailor-made itineraries for visitors to Costa Rica. The company can arrange activities such as bird watching, kayaking, visiting a coffee plantation or learning to make tortillas.

We asked Pereira to reveal her favorite less-discovered spots in Costa Rica, offer advice for first-time visitors and more.

IndependentTraveler.com: Most people considering a trip to Costa Rica probably picture wildlife and natural beauty, but what interesting cultural experiences can travelers have there?
Maricruz Pereira:
Even though Costa Rica is mostly known for its beautiful nature, I think our best asset is our people. Tourists will find that Costa Ricans are very proud of our country and love to share it with our visitors. The best cultural experience would be to hang out with the locals whenever possible. You can do this by going on a pub/beer crawl in San Jose, going to the local fiestas in any village, stopping in a farmers’ market and even joining a mejenga (impromptu soccer game) in the local plaza! Talk to the locals; ask questions; don’t be afraid to approach them. You will go back home with a nice tan and a bunch of new friends!

IT: What are your favorite places in Costa Rica, and why?
MP:
There are so many places to love in Costa Rica! I enjoy the majesty of our several active volcanoes. Some of them, like the Poas and the Irazu, are safe and relatively easy to explore; you can walk right up to the rim of the crater and gaze inside. The beaches in the south Caribbean are wild and beautiful, with the lush forest coming all the way down to the beach, and the laid-back, colorful Caribbean culture that makes you slow down and enjoy the moment. They are perfect for relaxing and getting away from the crowds.

Of course, Corcovado National Park, which is my favorite rain forest, is so remote and secluded; it is a real adventure just getting there. And then you find yourself immersed in the rain forest, with the ocean at your feet, and the howler monkeys and scarlet macaws “singing” just a few meters away.

IT: What advice would you give first-time visitors before they come to Costa Rica?
MP:
Different latitude, different attitude. Don’t plan on being locked up in an all-inclusive for several days in a row. As much as I like our beaches, Costa Rica has a different vibe to it. It’s not all about sun and sea (although that’s a nice part too), but about traveling around, going on our roads, seeing the sights, exploring. And if you are renting a car, ask for a GPS!

rio celeste tenorio volcano national park waterfall


IT: Which part of Costa Rica is most overlooked, and why should travelers check it out?
MP:
The area of Rio Celeste in the northern area is a jewel that is yet to be discovered. Inside Tenorio Volcano National Park there is this magnificent river and waterfall that are bright blue (hence the name Rio Celeste). It’s a moderately difficult hike within the forest with quite a few steep steps to get there, but the view and the energy of the area are worth it!

IT: What’s one food every traveler should try in Costa Rica?
MP:
Chifrijo! It’s a delicious concoction of rice, beans, avocado, pico de gallo and small pieces of fried pork, served with toasted tortillas in a medium-sized bowl. Don’t be fooled by the small size. It’s a full meal!

IT: Outside of Costa Rica, what are your favorite travel destinations?
MP:
I enjoy England very much. I have always loved everything related to its history and tradition. I especially like visiting the old, magical places like Stonehenge, Glastonbury, Avebury… I find all the tales and stories around these sites fascinating, and the scenery is just breathtaking!

Check out more travel interviews!

12 Best Costa Rica Experiences
Where to Stay in Costa Rica

–interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

Elia Locardi met his wife Naomi when they were teens in the Florida Keys. Today the Locardis have no home. They’re perpetual nomads, traipsing around the globe taking photos and videos, writing about their experiences and leading tours.

This March will mark the fifth consecutive year the 30-something couple has been on the road. They’re the subject of a new travel documentary by SmugMug Films, the video wing of the photo storage and sharing site SmugMug. The videos tell the behind-the-lens stories of some of its most interesting photographer users, and the Locardis certainly fit that bill. Check out the documentary below.


We caught up with the Locardis to learn more about five years with the world as their home.

Independent Traveler.com: Do you have a permanent home at all? An apartment? A mailbox?
Elia Locardi:
The easiest answer is: “It’s complicated.” Selling nearly everything we owned, packing the remaining things into a five-foot-by-five-foot storage unit and leaving our permanent address behind in 2012, we relied on close friends to collect our mail for us and let us use their home address.

Naomi Locardi: To ease the burden on our friends, last year we set up an account with a family-owned shipping store in Central Florida. They now send, receive and hold shipments and mail for us, no matter how many months it takes for us to pick them up.

IT: When did the “travel bug” first hit you?
EL:
We’ve always wanted to travel. It’s just that for most of our young adult lives, we focused so much on our work life and careers. In the process of trying to live the “American Dream,” we always dismissed world travel as something that we’d never be able to afford. My entire outlook on life changed during a trip to Italy in 2009, and we decided to make both photography and travel our highest priority.

NL: That trip to Italy was the first time I ever left the U.S., and when our plane took off for Rome, it was quite emotional for me. My entire life I had dreamed of visiting Italy, and that dream finally becoming a reality moved me to tears. That’s just one of the many reasons Italy means so much to us.

cinque terre at night


IT: How has technology made this choice of lifestyle possible? Do you think you could have done this 20 or 30 years ago, for instance?
EL:
Traveling the world in the past would be much more intimate, and a lot of destinations would still be relatively untouched and pure. That being said, that very same intimacy was largely due to the lack of global communication. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that we were using payphones and calling cards. Simple things like staying in contact with family was extremely difficult, so along with that intimacy with a place, you would have to also accept more isolation.

NL: These days we really tend to take technology for granted, especially when it comes to personal communication. Now, at any moment and no matter where I happen to be in the world, I can easily send a text or Facebook message to my mom and dad.

IT: What is the hardest thing about living permanently on the road?
NL:
Simple things, like staying connected. Sometimes a reliable internet connection can be very hard to come by. Other than that, you’d be surprised how quickly you can adapt to this lifestyle.

EL: When you boil it down, it’s not home that you miss, it’s the feeling of home. And those feelings can be replicated no matter where you go.

IT: Traveling as a couple can’t be a bed of roses all the time! What advice do you have for other couples or groups to ensure they maintain peace and happiness on the road?
NL:
When you travel full-time, you’re basically always together and most often you’re sharing a small hotel room or apartment. Since we also work together, it can be a challenge to give each other the space we may need. It really takes being able to communicate to each other when those times are and respecting one another’s varying needs.

EL: This type of lifestyle requires a strong relationship and the ability to be very courteous and understanding. If you want to travel perpetually long term, try to find ways you can both spend time together, and have revitalizing activities apart as well.

elia and naomi locardi hot air balloon


IT: Tell us about an interaction you had with a local that made a big impact on you and has stayed with you.
NL:
During our time in Bhutan early last year, our guide helped arrange a photo shoot with a local woman who was a nomadic yak herder. We were photographing her in the morning as she went about gathering milk from the herd. After she finished, she ran along with the herd to guide them out to pasture, and I followed.

As we started back toward the rest of our team, she grabbed my hand and we walked hand in hand all the way back to her shelter. As we approached, they asked why we were holding hands, and I replied, “When a local Bhutanese woman grabs your hand, you don’t ask questions; you simply take her hand back and enjoy the moment.” It was a special moment, and a reminder of the beauty and kindness of the human spirit that unites us all.

IT: And now let’s talk destinations: What were the favorite places you visited in 2016?
EL:
In Bhutan, it’s hard to describe how wonderful it is to be there. It’s unique to the world, and the people there are so genuinely kind that you can’t help but feel welcomed at every turn.

Greece stands out because we spent five weeks working on multiple projects there. We celebrated Naomi’s birthday with a candlelight dinner on the beach in Serifos, a gorgeous little island in the western Cyclades. After that much time living the Mediterranean island lifestyle, it was hard to leave!

NL: This is always one of the most difficult questions to answer! Every place has its wonderful aspects, and I seem to fall in love with just about everywhere we go in some way or another. It always comes back to the people in the end for me, though. Sharing trips to Bhutan, Japan, Italy, Greece and Iceland. We had the incredible pleasure of traveling with some truly wonderful people for several professional projects and also during some photo tours we were leading.

IT: Which destinations are you planning to visit in 2017?
EL:
I’m looking forward to visiting northern India to photograph wild tigers and Patagonia in Chile to photograph the stunning landscapes.

NL: Aside from the ones that Elia mentioned, I’m also hoping to make it to Morocco, Cuba and Norway.

Check out more travel interviews!

9 Best Places to Travel in 2017
18 Ways to Keep the Peace with Your Travel Companion

— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

If your desired travel experience includes not spending a lot of money and being able to interact with locals, then Homestay.com is a lodging option you’ll want to consider. Launched in 2013, Dublin-based Homestay.com allows you to book a room in a local’s home in more than 150 countries. Hosts may take you on a tour of their city, cook you a meal or simply engage in breakfast conversation and provide touring advice. Rates are surprisingly low — much lower than booking a room in someone’s home through Airbnb, for example.

alan clarke homestay ceo


We chatted with Homestay.com CEO Alan Clarke about what to expect from a stay at one of the 50,000 host properties around the world.

IndependentTraveler.com: The social interaction and insider knowledge of a destination are obvious benefits of Homestay.com. What are some benefits that might not be apparent to a new user?
Alan Clarke:
It’s a great budget alternative to hotels and less crowded than hostels — and you get your own private room, not a dorm. Breakfast is included in the price and often there are other perks too: Many hosts are happy to throw in a pick-up service from the airport, laundry service, shared dinners, storing of luggage, use of the kitchen or a bicycle and more.

IT: Who tends to use this type of lodging?
AC:
Solo travelers account for more than 60 percent of the bookings. It’s ideal for anyone traveling alone who wants to stay with a local in their home and share a meal or hang out. It can help you to feel safer and more confident about going somewhere you’ve never been before.

People on holiday can enjoy a culturally immersive experience, while those traveling for business can return to a friendly face at the end of a busy day instead of an empty hotel room. And 40 percent of the guests booking on Homestay.com are students, many of whom need a home [away] from home for an extended period of time.

Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo

IT: Homestay costs are surprisingly affordable. With the advent of Airbnb, Sonder, VRBO and other sites, surely you could raise your rates. Why have you kept them so low?
AC:
It’s up to the hosts to set their own prices. We help them to understand the need to be competitive and educate them on how to adjust their rates for seasonality or special events. However, for many of the hosts on Homestay.com it’s as much about the people they’ll meet as it is about the extra revenue they’ll earn.

IT: How do you ensure that people stay safe when using a homestay? Have you ever had safety incidents?
AC:
We encourage hosts and guests to verify their ID when signing up. It’s not compulsory, but we do recommend it. We work with a third-party provider who independently verifies the validity of the IDs. Prior to setting our hosts live for bookings our team checks the listing to ensure its authenticity.

When a guest wants to book they have the opportunity to send messages back and forth to the host, allowing them to build trust and rapport prior to making a booking. We also offer a custom video chat as part of the booking process.

And we have a customer service team on hand seven days a week to help, should an issue arise. With thousands of guest reviews, 90 percent of them five star, I can assure you that we place customer satisfaction and safety at the top of our list of priorities.

colorful bedroom


IT: Tell us about one of the most interesting homestay experiences you’ve had.
AC:
While travelling in Italy I stayed with an amazing host in Florence — really close to the Ponte Vecchio. She was a certified tour guide with a passion for traditional Tuscan cooking, so you can imagine how most of my days were spent!

IT: What do you look for in a host?
AC:
I’m a pretty independent traveler so for me the host that best suits my needs is someone who will mostly leave me to my own devices but is also happy to share their tips and advice if I need it. Each guest and host is different in terms of the level of interaction they want from the experience. That’s why we encourage our guests and hosts to communicate as much as possible during and after the booking process.

IT: What are some of your favorite destinations around the world?
AC:
I’ve been lucky to visit many amazing places: the Base Camp of Everest, Victoria Falls in Zambia, Zanzibar, Goa, the Great Wall in China, Copacabana, Golden Gate Park, Lake Baikal in Siberia, the pubs of London, the restaurants of Paris, the cafes of Melbourne.

I think what makes me most excited about any trip is the uniqueness that each destination has to offer, which for me is a combination of everything from culture to people to architecture and landscape. Perhaps two that stand out are Biarritz in France and Kerry in Ireland. Both are coastal, beautiful locations, with deep local culture and great food and people.

IT: And where are you going next?
AC:
A Christmas market in Europe with my family — our first trip abroad with our first child. Very exciting!

Check out more travel interviews!

Homestays and Farmstays
Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

–interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

From backpackers to retirees, more than 300,000 people a year travel through Europe by train, and it’s now possible to visit 28 different countries by train on a Eurail Global Pass. A lover of the rails herself, Silvia Fischer serves as sales and marketing manager for Eurail Group G.I.E. Fischer chatted with us about what’s new in Europe train travel and where she dreams of going.

silvia fischer eurail group


IndependentTraveler.com: If a traveler hasn’t been on a European train in a few years, what will they find that’s new?
Silvia Fischer:
One of the key differences is the quality and breadth of services, including high-speed train lines. In first class, seating is now more spacious, and many seats recline. Food is often served right to your seat, and in several countries you can charge your devices and connect to Wi-Fi straight from your seat.

With the Eurail Pass there have been plenty of improvements too, including the Children Travel for Free program that allows two children between 4 and 11 years old to travel for free with an adult Eurail Pass holder. This covers grandchildren as well.

Some other changes also include the addition of four new countries for Eurail — Poland, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro — and new passes like the Scandinavia Pass and the Greek Islands Pass.

IT: Eurail’s research shows that Central Europe is the most popular destination for travelers 50 years old and up. Why is that part of Europe trending?
SF:
Countries like Germany and Switzerland will always be popular rail destinations due to the extensiveness of their networks. However, when people are coming back to Europe for a second, third or even fourth time, they are often looking for new experiences away from well-known hot spots. They are keen to explore areas that didn’t used to be as accessible, such as Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Croatia. It also helps that long-haul flights from the States are opening up to these countries too.

IT: You were recently in the U.S. What do you like about rail travel in the States, and what do you think could be improved?
SF:
Similar to Europe, the U.S. offers some grand scenic journeys that can only be witnessed by rail — there’s nowhere else in the world where you can see the likes of the Grand Canyon from the comfort of your seat! On the flip side, passenger or commuter rail within the U.S. can be quite limited, and in many cases stations are only located within city limits of major hub cities. Coming from Europe, where there’s more than 10,000 stations accessible by passenger trains, I find the difference quite striking.

IT: What tips can you share to save money on rail travel in Europe?
SF:
One of my top tips would be to book in advance before landing in Europe. One bonus of the booking period is that travelers can take advantage of promotional offers throughout the year and then travel up to 11 months later.

If you’re looking for a vacation that’s easier on the wallet, consider traveling within Eastern and Central Europe, or in the quieter months outside of the busy summer season.

bernina express switzerland


IT: Which European routes are absolutely essential to reserve in advance?
SF:
Due to popular demand, some high-speed, international and overnight trains in Europe require a reservation. That said, high-speed and international routes for countries popular with U.S. travelers like Germany and Austria don’t require a reservation. And in many cases there are alternative regional trains that passengers can opt for instead. The journey might be longer, but you skip having to make a reservation.

IT: What are your favorite tips for train travel?
SF:
My number one piece of advice is to download the Rail Planner App. It’s a great tool that provides train timetables and tells you where connecting routes or reservations are necessary. The app is free and works offline.

If you’re in search of some quiet time, it’s quite common in Western Europe to find trains with “silent” carriages or cabins — no chitchat allowed! This is ideal for catching up on a book or sleep. And don’t forget to admire the views from the window!

IT: What are your personal favorite rail routes in Europe?
SF:
That’s a tough choice! For the idyllic views in wine country, I’d say the Rhine Valley Line between Koblenz and Mainz in Germany. … For historic significance, it would have to be the Bernina Express between Chur in Switzerland and Tirano in Italy. This route follows two UNESCO World Heritage-listed lines, the Albula and the Bernina.

And for the uniqueness I would have to say the route between Hamburg in Germany and Copenhagen in Denmark. The train literally rolls onto a ferry to cross the sea.

IT: What train trip — anywhere in the world — is on your travel bucket list?
SF:
Outside of Europe, the Seven Stars line on the island of Kyushu, Japan, is on my wish list. A relative newcomer — it only opened in 2013 — it’s a luxury sleeper train that travels around Japan’s southernmost main island with views of lush green landscapes and even volcanoes!

Within Europe it’s tricky to choose, but if time allows, my ultimate dream would be undertaking a single trip that encompassed all the 28 countries covered by the Eurail Pass. Now that would be an incredible European experience!

Check out more travel interviews!

Top 10 Reasons to Travel by Train
Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide

— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Matt Dimmer had just relocated to Los Angeles when his father, living in Michigan, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Dimmer flew back and forth frequently, spending as much time with his dad as he could.

matt dimmer


As he made the trips, Dimmer kept thinking about others who had loved ones with cancer. He was able to afford the flights to go see his dad, but what about those who couldn’t? It pained him to think about people in that situation.

Just before his father passed away, Dimmer launched a small nonprofit organization to collect frequent flier miles from donors and to use them to book flights for cancer patients and their family members. His nonprofit, The Extra Mile, is marking its fifth anniversary this year.

IndependentTraveler.com: Tell us how The Extra Mile works.
Matt Dimmer:
The premise of The Extra Mile is pretty simple. We take donated air miles and money and give them to those who cannot afford to visit loved ones terminally ill with cancer. Currently we are cancer-specific, as that is what my dad passed away from and I wanted to stay true to the nature of my inspiration.

IT: Can you tell us about some of the people you’ve helped?
MD:
We’ve helped several people connect with terminally ill loved ones just before losing that individual. We’ve brought people over from Europe to the United States. We flew a 15-year-old with a rare form of brain cancer and his family to an event that was on his bucket list. And we brought a sister to her deceased brother’s funeral so that she could have one last moment with him.

IT: How does someone donate?
MD:
There are two ways to donate. You can donate money directly through our website, or you can donate your accrued frequent flier miles.

Donating air miles is a bit more complicated. Because of airlines’ policies, there are fees associated with giving air miles, and the fees raise on a scale depending on the number of miles you’re looking to donate.

Let’s say you wanted to give 3,500 miles. There’s likely a set fee for that ranging from $50 to $150. If the individual donating the miles is willing to pay the fee, that makes for the easiest transaction. Otherwise, depending on the fees and amount of donated dollars in our account, I’ll offer to cover the fee in exchange for the miles. This is a bit more of a process, but has happened a few times.

The cash donations are used mostly for purchasing tickets, but some funds go to paying for taxes on donated mile flights as well as minor operating costs for the organization.

airplane in blue sky


IT: How many miles have you collected in the past five years?
MD:
We’ve received hundreds of thousands of miles. They usually get spent as soon as we get them as there’s always an ongoing queue of people who have reached out.

IT: It can be difficult to secure a flight using miles. Do the airlines show more flexibility in helping your recipients?
MD:
Unfortunately, not really. The airlines stick to their rules, regardless of the reason for the miles being used. The most flexibility I tend to experience is the airline agent on the other end of the phone giving me a bit more time to pull all the necessary pieces together on that call so I can complete the flight.

I recently started a Change.org petition to encourage airlines to waive or lower the fees for transferring miles to someone else. I got frustrated one day and wanted to set something else in motion that would potentially get the airline’s attention.

IT: What plans do you in mind for the next five years of The Extra Mile?
MD:
Within the next five years I’d love to hit a major milestone, whether that’s amassing a team of volunteers, having a corporate partnership develop or making progress with at least one airline.

IT: Since The Extra Mile started, you’ve become a father yourself. How did becoming a father change your perspective on your cause?
MD:
Fatherhood is amazing. And it adds another level to the nonprofit. I can now imagine myself in my dad’s position, and all the things that I’d like to share with my sons about the time we had together. It also gives my boys something to continue, something that does good after I’m gone — a legacy started by their dad, in honor of their grandfather, that they can carry on.

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— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

It’s summer. The majority of European workers are likely on vacation while American workers are toiling away at the office, warehouse or other workplace. This isn’t necessarily because Europeans get more time off on average than their American counterparts (although they do). Poll after poll shows that around half of all Americans don’t use all of their allotted vacation time.

kanisa baker


Kanisa Baker has had enough. Americans must take vacation time, she says, for their sanity, for their health and for a fulfilling life. The 40-year-old from Maryland started Travel More Work Less, a website and online community that encourages people to use their vacation time. She knows firsthand how hard this is — but also why it’s so important.

IndependentTraveler.com: Why did you decide to make this your mission?
Kanisa Baker:
I used to be self-employed and could take off as much time as I wanted. But when I took a job with another company, I found that I was barely using my vacation time to take any significant trips. After talking to friends and coworkers and doing research on American workers, I saw how many of us are not taking much-needed and deserved time off.

Some studies show that we are more likely to suffer from heart disease [if we don’t take] vacation — women especially. I started Travel More Work Less so that together we could identify real strategies to break from the routine and stresses of life and put more vacation days on the calendar.

IT: Why do you think Americans don’t use all of their vacation time?
KB:
Because of a lack of planning. Many of us have an “autopilot” lifestyle, and planning a vacation can be a lot of work. You have to identify the location and the best time to go, search for the best price, figure out which activities are available, determine the best place to stay, etc. So many times we throw up our hands and either stick with our regular daily routine or just have a “staycation.”

There is choice and intention behind taking a vacation. If you don’t plan for a “real” vacation, you end up using your days off to stay home or visit family. Those options can be even more stressful than a day at work.

IT: Some people don’t use vacation time because they can’t afford to go away. What would you advise them to do?
KB:
This is one of the top reasons holding people, myself included, back. The costs associated with life, work and stress get in the way. Travel then gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list. One useful piece of advice is to focus on small, daily and intentional [money-saving] habits like eating out less, letting go of the unused gym membership, or selling stuff that you don’t need, all to increase travel funds. Save that money instead in a vacation fund.

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IT: What advice do you have for people who are worried about work piling up if they took time off?
KB:
I wrote a guide about this exact topic, and one of the strategies I discuss is implementing a cross-training program within your company/organization. This could reduce the amount of work to come back to after a vacation.

IT: Is it okay for people to check email or do work while they’re away?
KB:
Well, checking email on the beach is certainly better than checking it in the office. But being on vacation means it’s important to be in the present moment with your loved ones. Perhaps it’s best to vacation is spots where Wi-Fi is very limited!

IT: Do you think people would take more time off if employers gave their employees more vacation time?
KB:
That’s a tough one. It really comes down to the person. Either you are someone that values and sees the importance of vacation time or you aren’t.

IT: Where do you like to travel on vacation?
KB:
As I’ve gotten older, I found I get really antsy on long plane rides. So I’ve enjoyed exploring vacation spots closer to home like Canada, Central America and the Caribbean. My last vacation was to the Florida Keys and Mexico.

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— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Would you welcome a traveler you’ve never met to come sleep on your couch for free? If you would, you’re not alone; CouchSurfing.com, a website devoted to connecting travelers with local hosts, has a network of some 12 million members, including Jamie Matczak.

jamie matczak borgarnes iceland


Matczak lives with her chocolate lab in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and has been a Couchsurfing host for three years. She’s hosted guests from Hawaii, France, Denmark, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Texas, Wisconsin and South Korea. “I look at it as a fellowship type of exchange,” says Matczak. “I am providing a room in exchange for a new friendship!”

We chatted with Matczak by email about why she’s chosen to host, whether she’s had any safety issues and how welcoming strangers into her home has changed the way she travels.

IndependentTraveler.com: What made you decide to start hosting?
Jamie Matczak:
I had stayed with families on a trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2011 and was looking for a similar experience on a solo trip to Spain in 2012. I discovered the Couchsurfing site and loved the idea of offering travelers (surfers) a couch/room as they are traveling. I signed up, and even though I didn’t use it for my trip to Spain, I began to receive requests as a host. I had previously hosted women from France through a different program and enjoyed the experience.

IT.com: What are the biggest benefits of hosting?
JM:
The biggest benefit is getting to know someone new, possibly someone from another country. As a traveler who has been to more than 30 countries, I enjoy hearing about life and cultures in other places. I want to have conversations and learn, and that occurs with all of my guests. I also like the opportunity to show some highlights of my city, Green Bay. Surfers arrive at my house as strangers but leave as friends.

IT.com: As a woman who lives alone, have you ever had any safety concerns about hosting strangers? How do you protect yourself?
JM:
The site has verification checks, so you know if people are legit. Every profile also has a references area, so I can read what other hosts have said about a potential surfer. I typically don’t accept guests who don’t have any references, or if I feel something seems “off.” I tell friends or family when a surfer is arriving, just as a back-up. So far, I have not had any bad or unsafe experiences. I choose to believe that people on the site are using it for something positive.

IT.com: Why host people for free instead of charging a nightly fee with a service such as Airbnb?
JM:
I have considered using a site such as Airbnb where a fee is charged, but I don’t think that would fit with my busier lifestyle. With Couchsurfing, I don’t feel as bad if I have to decline a request or turn off “hosting” if needed. Also, I think if I charged a fee, I would feel under more pressure for my home to be spotless and perfect. Most Couchsurfers are happy to have a bed and are easygoing if my home doesn’t look perfect. And it’s really not about the money. With Airbnb, I might gain more in my pocketbook, but not necessarily gain a richer experience.

IT.com: Who’s the most memorable guest you’ve ever had?
JM:
EVERY guest has been memorable in their own way. As a few examples, I hosted two friends from Australia who were driving to all 50 states. I met two women from Wisconsin who were in Green Bay to volunteer for the weekend. I hosted a young woman from France who was studying for the semester at our local university, and when she arrived, her campus apartment was not available. In January, a father and son from Germany stayed with me because the father took his son to a Packers game as a high school graduation gift. Most recently, I hosted a young man from Korea who is walking across North America.

IT.com: Are you still in touch with folks you’ve hosted? Have you ever slept on their couches in return?
JM:
Yes! Most of them are on Facebook, so that is a great way to stay in touch. I have not visited any of my guests, but I hope to in the future. I have tentative plans to visit the family of the German father and son, as well as a former surfer who is now in Taiwan.

IT.com: Has hosting people changed the way you travel? If so, how?
JM:
Definitely. I lot of people ask me what I “get” out of hosting. It’s not just a new friendship, but I also feel like, as a solo traveler, I have been really fortunate on my trips. People have loaned me a cell phone to use or offered me rides when I’ve been lost. Of course, you have to be cautious and careful when traveling alone, especially as a female. But hosting people has made me more aware that most people in this world are good and want to do good things. They want to be helpful to other travelers, just as I do.

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— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

In December we introduced you to a couple who quit their jobs, loaded their possessions into an Airstream travel trailer and set off to visit every national park in the United States. Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish are now halfway through their all-American adventure, capturing it in real time on their Facebook page and sharing more in-depth stories and photography on their website, The Greatest American Road Trip.

Their current location: Zion National Park. We checked in with them to see how the trip is going.

grand canyon national park hiker


Independent Traveler: Six months on the road, and you both still sound so upbeat and enthusiastic! How are you faring?
Jonathan Irish:
Personally, I feel as though we are living an exclamation point. Everything seems to be punctuated with the extreme. We are so tired from the constant moving, so energized by the beauty of the parks, so grateful for the opportunity to see these beautiful places, so humbled that we are touching so many people with memories from their own park experiences as well as inspiration to get out and keep exploring. It’s everything all at once. It is definitely the best year of our lives.

Stefanie Payne: It seems like an obvious answer, but we are having the best year. We’re enjoying every minute … even when it’s tiring. To be truthful, this is a really hard project in a lot of ways. Keeping up with producing and editing content is literally a round-the-clock job. And some days you just don’t want to hike eight miles up a mountain! But the desire to make the most of this opportunity and create meaningful content that people (and we) enjoy fuels us in a way that makes fatigue fall away.

IT: Tell us about some of your favorite moments so far.
SP:
Some of the highlights for me have been the big hikes — the Subway at Zion, Grand Canyon Rim to Rim, a hike to the ancient Bristlecone Pines in Great Basin, Nevada.

JI: I love the early morning photo explorations, when the rest of the world is sleeping and the world is just coming to life. During these outings, I always find myself in beautiful locations, walking in the woods or in the mountains, the sun just starting to rise.

I also love the big hikes we’ve been doing, where we’ve challenged ourselves. The Subway hike in Zion, the Rim to Rim in Grand Canyon, the Panorama Trail in Yosemite. These are great memories for me.

big bend national park jonathan irish


IT: What has been the hardest part of this trip — something you didn’t expect to be challenging?
SP:
Just keeping up with editing. That is the monster on this project. We put out a thorough snapshot from each park, I feel, but there is so much we’re creating that we simply don’t have time to work through. For every photo, memory, idea, there seem to be 100 more unshared and unsaid.

JI: I second Stef’s answer. It’s one thing to travel to the parks, but another to put out great content that people will want to come back to. It takes a lot of creative energy, which is very hard to keep at a high level all the time. Luckily, the nature in the parks renews us every time we feel drained.

IT: And what was easier than expected?
SP:
The task of finding and making a great experience in every park. Somehow, we always seem to manage to capture a park in a way we’re satisfied with.

IT: We saw you on “Good Morning America” recently and caught a glimpse of the inside of the Airstream trailer. Is it hard living in such a small space?
SP:
We’ve been living in a small space together for many years so we didn’t expect it to be difficult. But it is helping us to improve how we communicate. Any bickering has to be pushed through pretty quickly. There just isn’t time to not get along. And we’re both pretty happy.

JI: Being a full-time RVer has been easier than I expected. We love our Airstream and have gotten very used to living in it. In many ways, it is bigger than a lot of NYC apartments! And we love the fact that we are mobile. I could get used to this RVing life!


IT: What have you learned about yourself from embarking on this road trip?
JI:
This kind of trip tests one’s resolve and energy. We’ve found that we always have more of both than we thought, which has been really satisfying.

SP: We have more energy in ourselves than we might think. The trick is to apply it to something you love doing, surrounded by those whom you love doing it with.

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— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma