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Michal Alter has spent her career working on behalf of underserved communities. So when the Israel native and New York resident decided to launch a tourism operation two years ago, the needs of others were at the forefront of her mind.

michal alter


The organization Alter cofounded, Visit.org, allows travelers to find and book authentic and impactful excursions in the U.S. and overseas. Visit.org carefully vets the organizations it works with to ensure that the activities make a social impact and that 100 percent of the fees a traveler pays for an activity is invested in the local community.

From her office in New York, Alter talked with us about this rapidly growing platform for what she called “social impact travel experiences.”

Independent Traveler: Why did you start this company?
Michal Alter:
We launched Visit.org in 2015 in response to the travel industry’s immense potential to generate economic sustainability for local communities. The $7 trillion travel industry is the world’s top economic driver, yet only 5 percent of earnings are left in local hands. With this in mind, we created a platform that enables social ventures like nonprofits and other community-based enterprises to create and market mainstream tourism products that will finance their missions.

IT: How many different activities could a traveler book through Visit.org?
MA:
As of March 2017, we have 545 exclusive experiences in 65 countries. We aim to reach more than 1,000 do-good partners by the end of the year.

IT: Why is it important for travelers to support local communities?
MA:
When we do not support local communities, local cultures and natural resources get diluted. What makes the destination so unique and different from our own home towns then disappears. When travelers support local communities, they are leaving funds directly in the hands of the local hosts whose communities’ natural resources, labor, social fabrics and cultures are affected.

IT: What are some of the more unusual experiences someone could arrange through Visit.org?
MA:
Some of my favorite experiences are in always inspiring Paris. The most unusual offers guests the chance to upcycle trash into artwork. Visitors repurpose waste into something beautiful as well as learn about the importance of responsible waste management.

In Cuzco, Peru, you can go to a potato park with a group that works to preserve local ancestral agricultural knowledge and celebrate the country’s unique potato heritage. There are 1,500 native types of potatoes grown in Peru!

IT: Can you tell me a little about the vetting process you go through before selecting the organizations you partner with?
MA:
We focus on partnerships with locally operated grassroots organizations as they are the best equipped to serve their communities; they have vast knowledge and understanding of the issues. Our high-level vetting criteria includes confirming a measurable track record of significant impact on the local community and a commitment that 100 percent of hosts’ revenue from the experience will be invested into the local community. We then conduct extensive online research about potential organizations and use existing official databases of highly vetted nonprofits around the globe to identify new partners.

Once we’ve identified a new potential partner organization, we send someone from our global network of more than 200 “travel ambassadors” to visit the organizations in person. After the meeting, the ambassador fills out a detailed report.

IT: Your activities are not very expensive. Do people have a misperception that social impactful travel equals more expensive travel?
MA:
There is definitely that misconception. It comes from the fact that a lot of what is marketed to consumers as “social impactful travel” is either an expensive and long-term volunteer tourism commitment, or a high-end, highly curated culturally immersive itinerary. This is where Visit.org’s innovation lies, as we make impactful travel experiences both affordable and easy to book.

IT: If a traveler is told that an excursion or activity will support the local community, what can he or she do to confirm that’s indeed the case?
MA:
Travelers can check a provider’s website to see what type of company it is, review the mission statement, research what the vendor is incentivized by and see how revenue will be spent. Also, check customer reviews to see if past guests had meaningful experiences and look to see if the company has responsible travel certifications from such organizations as the Center for Responsible Travel, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and the International Ecotourism Society.

IT: What have been some of your most memorable culturally immersive experiences from your travels?
MA:
I recently visited Al Hagal, an Israeli social enterprise that leads yearlong youth empowerment programs through surfing to underserved youth from around the country. I took my first wave-surfing lesson. Surfing the waves for the first time was a lot of fun, but much more powerful was getting to know the staff and youth, taking in the contagious passion with which the staff speaks about their youth program, and listening to stories of transformation from the program’s participants.

3 Secrets for Traveling Like a Local
Voluntourism: Does It Really Help?

— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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

Every year, the European Union selects two cities to be designated European Capitals of Culture. Activities all year long show off the cities’ charms. Destinations large and small are selected; some are well known, while others may be new to travelers.

The latter is likely the case with the 2017 selections: Aarhus, Denmark, and Pafos, Cyprus. Here’s a primer on both cities.

aarhus denmark


Aarhus, Denmark
Where: In the geographic center of Denmark, northwest of Copenhagen.

Why It’s Noteworthy: The second largest city in Denmark (after Copenhagen), Aarhus was founded as a fortified Viking settlement. Today it’s best known as music epicenter, especially for jazz and rock aficionados. Cruise ships stop there, and its port is one of the most important in Northern Europe.

Top Sights: Many of the city’s 1.4 million annual visitors tour its art and historical museums, the Old Town Open Air Museum and nearby Botanical Gardens, and the Tivoli Friheden amusement park. Wandering the city, you’ll see architecture representing a number of eras, from Romanesque and Gothic to Nordic classicism and Functionalism.

Don’t Miss: Nibbling on a typical Danish smorrebrod (buttered bread) at one of the city’s oldest taverns, Peter Gift, which dates back to 1906.

Special Events: Festivals, exhibits, author talks, concerts and other activities are planned. The city will be decked out with special garden installations between April and September. The Royal Danish Theatre will perform a Viking saga called “Rode Orm” from May 24 through July 1.

More Info: Aarhus2017.dk

agios georgios pafos cyprus


Pafos, Cyprus
Where: On the southwest coast of the Mediterranean island.

Why It’s Noteworthy: Pafos (also spelled Paphos) is home to Aphrodite’s Rock, a beach outcrop that’s considered to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess of love and beauty.

Top Sights: The whole city is on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List, and picturesque scenes are at every turn. The Temple of Aphrodite attracts many pilgrims. Pafos also has a Byzantine castle, catacombs and a museum displaying archaeological artifacts.


Don’t Miss: An afternoon exploring the cliffs and beach near Aphrodite’s Rock. If you take a swim around the rock, it’s said that you will be blessed with eternal beauty.

Special Events: Because Pafos boasts spectacular weather year-round, organizers are planning many activities outdoors. Expect monthly exhibits, walking tours, performances, food events and nature outings.

More Info: Pafos2017.eu

Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide
Top 25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

A January tradition among travel experts and publications is to present their lists of the best destinations for the new year.

moraine lake canada


We love knowing what’s hot and what’s not, but there’s often no rhyme or reason to the selections in many of these lists. And some are so long that they don’t help you decide where to go. AFAR Magazine, for example, picked an overwhelming 100 places.

To help you decide which lists are the most useful, we read every “best of 2017” travel article we could find and selected the following as the best among them.

Lonely Planet – Best in Travel 2017: Canada tops the travel guide’s Top 10 Countries list, thanks to a favorable exchange rate for Americans and planned celebrations for the nation’s 150th anniversary (including free admission to all national parks). Its “best of” site also includes a list of the best value destinations (Nepal comes out on top) and best U.S. destinations (Asheville, North Carolina).

Forbes – 10 Coolest Places to Go in 2017: Forbes’ offering stands out because it’s different than every other “best of” list out there. Destinations were selected for their coolness quotient and include spots you may never have heard of before. For instance, there’s a spot within the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park in Washington state that’s considered the quietest place in all of North America.

Travel + Leisure – 50 Best Places to Travel in 2017: Fifty places is a lot, but we like the research that went into the list from the monthly travel magazine. Editors spend several months surveying writers and travel specialists around the world. The alphabetical list includes Cape Town, South Africa, which debuts a new museum of contemporary African art this year; Helsinki, Finland, which is celebrating 100 years of independence in December; and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as the spot to view a total solar eclipse in August.

National Geographic Travel – Best Trips: While it’s not evident why certain spots were selected, we nonetheless like this feature because the page is so beautifully designed and interactive. Places are bundled into categories such as nature, cities and culture.

New York Times – 52 Places to Go in 2017: We always savor this annual list, which is long enough (and includes enough multimedia extras) to linger over throughout the month.

And don’t miss our own 9 Best Places to Travel in 2017, which recommends countries, cities and regions around the globe.

The Best Travel Destinations for Every Month
9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

Where are you planning to travel in 2017?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Today is the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and while many of us dread the season’s chilly days and long nights, here at IndependentTraveler.com we’re looking on the bright side. Pack your snowboots and mittens, and join us for a virtual trip around the world’s winter wonderlands.

northern lights norway


Norway is one of several countries where you can see the northern lights color the night sky.

yaksaam temple winter south korea


Yaksaam Temple is part of Geumosan Provincial Park in South Korea.

quebec city


Quebec City celebrates winter with numerous activities, including toboggan rides along Terrasse Dufferin.

japan snow monkeys


Outside of Nagano, Japan, visitors can get up close and personal with snow monkeys keeping warm in the area’s hot springs.

vatnajokull glacier iceland


In winter, you can hike through one of the ice caves near Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland.

bryce canyon in the snow utah


Utah’s spectacular Bryce Canyon, a national park, looks even more striking under a dusting of snow.

moscow in the snow


Moscow‘s famously chilly winters make for picturesque scenes like this one.

Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Winter?
How to Pack for a Winter Vacation

— written by Sarah Schlichter

We recently introduced you to a travel startup whose staff designs long-weekend getaways without revealing your destination until just before you depart. All of the destinations on Pack Up + Go are medium or large cities in the United States and are usually just three or four hours from your departure point.

adventurous traveler leaping in the mountains


Apparently, that’s not intrepid enough for some travelers. Another new travel company called Jubel plans longer themed journeys to overseas locales.

Like Pack Up + Go, Jubel will design a custom trip based on your destinations of interest, preferred activities and budget. First you choose a theme — such as “party purist,” “culturist” or “chilled nature.” (These can be combined.) Then you fill out an extensive survey that details such preferences as hotel budget, scenery desires, transport options and how much (or how little) of the trip you want to be a mystery.

You can be as vague or as specific as you’d like in telling the staff where you want to go. If it’s mid-winter, you’re fed up with the cold and you just want to go “someplace warm,” that’s enough info for Jubel’s team to plan your vacation. But you can also be more specific — museum hopping in southern Europe, for example, or a rain forest destination in Ecuador.

After conducting research about your trip and curating a personalized experience, your Jubel travel consultant will send you at least one proposal, purposely vague enough that the trip will be a surprise (if that’s what you request) but detailed enough for you to make a decision. If you decide you want to make a booking, you’ll need to pay a deposit of 50 percent of the trip’s estimated total cost, which varies based on the length of your trip and your budget constraints.

“I never realized how mentally taxing doing all those travel details [was] until I was completely freed of them,” one traveler, Filip Victor, says in a testimonial on Jubel’s website.

Once you’re paid up, Jubel provides travelers with a sealed envelope revealing your destination. If that’s the maximum amount of surprise your nerves can handle, Jubel can provide the full itinerary too.

But if you’re more adventurous than that, Jubel will provide a pack of sealed envelopes to be opened during your trip. They contain details about different legs of your adventure, so the “Mission Impossible”-esque surprises continue as your trip progresses … should you choose to accept them.

The Healing Power of Travel
12 Ways to Be More Spontaneous When You Travel

Would you try Jubel?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

This weekend Americans and Canadians will “fall back,” turning their clocks back an hour to end Daylight Saving Time for another year. The U.S. and Canada are two countries out of dozens around the world that switch their clocks back and forth during the year to save energy and maximize sunlight. But which places don’t observe this practice? Below are a few you might want to visit.

st basils cathedral moscow


President Vladimir Putin moved Russia from year-round “summer time” to year-round “winter time” in 2014.

wailua falls kauai hawaii


Hawaii is one of two U.S. states that do not observe Daylight Saving Time. The other is Arizona (with the exception of the Navajo Nation).

baobab trees madagascar


Like most African nations, Madagascar does not observe Daylight Saving Time.

yaksaam temple south korea


South Korea hasn’t observed Daylight Saving Time since the 1980s, according to historical info at TimeandDate.com.

new delhi india


Most of the world’s major industrialized nations observe Daylight Saving Time, but India is a prominent exception.

tourist and llama at machu picchu


Peru hasn’t observed Daylight Saving Time since a couple of separate years in the 1990s, according to TimeandDate.com.

bottom bay barbados


Since 1980, Barbados has fallen in line with most other Caribbean islands, which stay in the same time zone all year round.

The World’s Most Beautiful Waterfalls
The 9 Best Places to Travel Alone

— written by Sarah Schlichter

The last minutes of summer are ticking away, with just two days left until the official start of autumn. So while the final countdown is on, I count down for you a batch of intriguing things in the world of travel that will help you decide where to go this fall (and winter), and how to get there in the smartest possible way.

autumn road


10 Transport Apps to Help You Get Around
A technology reporter for the Guardian reveals his picks for the best 10 apps to help you navigate various transportation options. While the article is U.K.-centric, most of the apps are applicable to other cities around the world.

9 New Hotels Worthy of Your Instagram Account
Vogue magazine runs down nine new properties around the world that are chic enough to appear as a square image in your social media feed, including an artistic enclave on the beach in Nicaragua. Perhaps one will be on your travel list for this fall?

8 Adventurous Ski Holidays for 2016-17
Are you a skier? These are the hottest (coldest?) ski experiences in the world this coming season, according to the Guardian. Heliskiing in British Columbia late this fall, anyone?

7 Ways to Stay Safe When You’re Traveling Alone
Everyone travels alone at some point. Blending in, booking hotels strategically and trusting your gut are among the tips that a batch of frequent solo travelers offer in this Mental Floss article. (For more info, see 15 Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling Solo.)

6 Ways to Stay Healthy When You Travel
If anyone knows what to do to stay healthy on the road, it’s someone who hasn’t been home in nine months. In this Medium article John Fawkes intermittently fasts, takes probiotics and melatonin, and incorporates other habits into his day to stay healthy. (Check out 9 Products to Help You Stay Healthy While Traveling.)

5 Underrated European Destinations
Romania and Montenegro are among a handful of spots in Europe that more travelers should make a priority to see, says a woman who quit her New York City job to travel the world. This autumn’s shoulder season could be the ideal time to check some out.

4 Affordable Ways to Travel Long Term
Huffington Post travel blogger Shannon Ullman suggests that volunteering abroad not only is personally rewarding, but also allows you to stay in a place for a longer period of time without spending a lot of money. She offers three other ways you can afford to travel longer.

3 Off-Season Luxe Destinations for Less
Two spots in the Caribbean and one landlocked U.S. destination made the TODAY Show’s list of three well-discounted destinations for this fall.

2 People Traveling for a Year on $20,000
Writer Chris Guillebeau profiles an Arizona couple who ditched their stay-in-one-place lifestyle and hit the road, allowing housesitting opportunities to determine their destinations. Hard to believe they financed nearly the whole year merely by selling their car!

dog bark park inn cottonwood idaho


1 B&B Shaped Like a Beagle
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you suddenly discover a bed and breakfast built in the shape of a floppy-eared dog. The blog My Modern Met features the Dog Bark Park Inn in Cottonwood, Idaho, a two-bedroom cottage shaped like a beagle. Go fetch?

Where are you headed this fall?

5 Photos to Inspire an Autumn Trip
12 Places That Shine in Shoulder Season

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

If you’re anything like me, you’ve started planning countless three-day weekend getaways but never ended up going anywhere. Either you grew tired of obsessing over the right place to stay or the best-priced flights, or you got too busy and forgot to book the trip.

A new travel agency concept launched this year that can remedy the problem for you. But there’s a catch: When you book a three-day getaway through Pack Up + Go, you don’t actually know where you’re going.

couple in convertible road trip sunset


That’s not entirely true: You eventually know where you’re going, if you play along the way you’re supposed to and wait until just before you hit the road to open the mystery envelope revealing your destination.

The team at Pack Up + Go will plan a three-day trip for you in the Continental United States, based on how much you have to spend and what you want to do. On the company’s website, you fill out a brief survey, noting your per-person travel budget and whether you prefer to drive or to take a bus, train or plane. You detail your preferred trip pace, mention the cities you’ve visited recently and select your interests from a checklist of nearly two dozen options.

Add your address and credit card details, and your work is done. The team will select a medium-size or large city that’s three to four hours from your departure location. The only info you’ll know in advance is the weather forecast and a few packing suggestions.

A few days before departure, a packet will arrive in the mail, telling you what time to depart. The packet includes a sealed envelope containing your destination, confirmation paperwork and a suggested itinerary. (Additional details, including a link to a personalized Google map, come via email.)

Currently only American travelers can use the service, and destinations are only in the Continental United States. The minimum cost is $400 per person (based on at least two travelers) for a road trip and $650 per person for a plane/train/bus outing, and covers transport and accommodations only. All other costs, including food and activities, are out of pocket.

If you want to use the site, plan at least a month in advance; the service has been so popular that staff are working crazy hours to keep up with demand.

12 Ways to Be More Spontaneous When You Travel
Between Trips? Take a Microadventure!

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

I admit it: I’m mourning the end of summer — those warm days spent basking on the beach, those last rays of sun lingering late into the evening. Fortunately, one of my favorite seasons to travel lies ahead.

I love autumn trips for the cool, comfortable weather, the lack of crowds and — of course — the colors. Check out five photos to get you in the mood to travel this fall.

scottish highlands autumn


Go hill walking in the Scottish Highlands and enjoy the dramatic fall colors — without the summer crowds. (Check out our 10 Best Scotland Experiences.)

mt fuji autumn


Japan may be most famous for its spring cherry blossom season, but autumn is a gorgeous time to visit Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, with fall foliage peaking from late October through much of November.

central park new york city autumn trees


Crisp, cool temperatures and crunchy leaves underfoot make fall our favorite time to wander through Central Park in New York City.

waterton lakes national park alberta autumn


Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta is one of many magnificent Canadian parks where you can go hiking through mountains blanketed in fall colors. (See our list of the 11 Best Canada Experiences.)

amsterdam canal in autumn


Amsterdam’s canals are picturesque any time of year, but there’s nothing like biking alongside the locals under a fiery orange canopy of trees. (Don’t miss our Amsterdam city guide.)

Where do you want to travel this fall?

The Best Travel Destinations for Every Month
12 Places That Shine in Shoulder Season

— written by Sarah Schlichter