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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

london big ben at nightIn this month’s featured review, reader Adrienne L. shares impressions from her first visit to the famous Harrods department store: “To describe it as massive would be an understatement. It boasts floor after floor of wonderful merchandise, from the scandalously expensive to the delightfully kitschy,” writes Adrienne. “The store personnel were quite helpful and gave us much-needed maps of the store. The highlight for us was visiting the Food Halls — several massive rooms chock-full of beautifully displayed food from all over the world. Choices included meat pies, seafood, cheeses, charcuterie, desserts, olives, pate, caviar and much more.”

Read the rest of Adrienne’s review here: A London Love Story. Adrienne has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Earlier this week, we offered our picks for the 13 Best England Experiences, including activities like learning to paint in the Lake District and sleeping in a New Forest yurt. While all of those experiences are truly unique and memorable, we also thought it would be fun to find a few off-the-wall activities to check out in England. Below are three bizarre events happening this summer or fall that just might be worth adding to your England itinerary.

Gravy Train
Why simply eat gravy when you can wrestle another human being in it? Locals will do just that later this month at the annual Gravy Wrestling competition in Rossendale, Lancashire, on August 26. Per the official Web site, “Contestants must wrestle in the gravy for two minutes whilst being scored for audience applause, and various different moves.” Well, at least it’s tastier than mud. Check out the video below to see samples of past performances.


Go Conkers
Most Yanks have no idea what the heck a conker is, much less that there’s such a thing as the World Conker Championships — so allow us to enlighten you. More commonly known in the U.S. as buckeyes, conkers are the fruits of the horse chestnut tree. The game of conkers is popular with British schoolchildren, and involves boring a hole in the conker to tie a string through it, and then swinging it from the end of the string against another person’s conker until one of them is destroyed. Sounds like high drama, no? You can catch the action at the World Conker Championships on October 13, 2013, in the town of Southwick — or just view highlights from a past competition below.



Pants on Fire
Back in school, were you the kid who vexed your teachers with increasingly creative excuses for not doing your homework? If so, you might be a good candidate to enter the World’s Biggest Liar competition, held each November at the Bridge Inn in Cumbria. The contest — part storytelling, part stand-up comedy — is a longstanding tribute to Will Ritson, a 19th-century publican who was famous for his tall tales (he once claimed that the locally grown turnips were so large they could be used as sheds for cows). This year’s fib-off will be held on November 21. According to VisitEngland.org, “Politicians and lawyers are reputedly barred from entering, as they are considered to ‘have an unfair advantage.’” To get the flavor, listen to this competitor from a previous year spin a yarn about trying to catch a nine-foot fish:





Photos: 13 Unforgettable England Experiences
7 Strange Foods from Around the World

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Prague One of my favorite ways to see and learn about a new place is with local tour guides. Nobody knows a place like locals do. They know not only the beaten path (about which they can often reveal little-known facts), but also those gems I’d never find on my own. But most important for me, they offer cultural insights into a community that only someone who lives, sleeps and works there could possibly know.

Today, I stumbled upon a new twist on the local tour guiding concept – guided tours from the homeless. This adds an entirely new layer onto what visitors can learn about a place, its people and culture. And the best part is, not only do visitors gain a new perspective on life in the destination they’re visiting, but they’re also supporting people who need help.

My introduction to the concept came care of the Prague Daily Monitor, which reported on a tourism project that employs eight homeless people as tour guides. According to the article, the guides offer “the narration of less known stories and visits to special interesting places,” in both Prague’s center as well as on the outskirts of the city.

Prague Travel Guide

The guides use their “long-lasting experience with living in the street” to choose the places they want to share with visitors. One book-loving guide, for example, takes tourists to lesser-known bookshops where second-hand books are available.

Other guides take visitors to the places homeless people and squatters inhabit.

Prague is not the first city to offer such tours. A quick Google search turned up similar tours in London, San Francisco and Amsterdam.

Some, like the London tours, visit tourist favorites, where guides point out the usual as well as offer insights into what it’s like to be homeless there. Others, like the San Francisco tour, take visitors to the “invisible” spots like homeless shelters, soup kitchens and workplace training programs.

Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

Would you take a tour led by a homeless person?

– written by Dori Saltzman

hotel signThe 2012 Summer Olympic Games are in full swing in London, and as is often the case during major events, prices for accommodations were sold at large premiums in the months leading up to the Games. But many hotels have seen less demand than they expected, prompting some to “discount” their inflated rates at the last minute in order to fill still-empty rooms.

According to the Press Association, some booking engines reported prices inflated as much as 300 percent over the past two months, but say rates have since fallen back to levels that are closer to the norm.

Over-inflated prices aren’t uncommon when major events come to town, such as Mardi Gras New Orleans or Venice‘s Carnevale, but when demand is lower than expected, prices do sometimes fall — leaving visitors who booked early feeling ripped off. So what’s a budget traveler to do to protect against price gouging when inflation is an issue?

1. Use sites like Tingo.com, which will credit your card accordingly if the price of your booked hotel room drops. (See Want a Hotel Refund? Yes. Please. to learn more about Tingo.)

2. Look into refundable rates, check cancellation policies and consider purchasing appropriate travel insurance in case you have buyer’s remorse after booking an expensive room. Whether you find a cheaper room elsewhere or just flat-out decide to forgo the entire trip, you’ll be more likely to get your money back.

3. Ditch the hotel. If hotels are out of your price range during certain special events, consider staying at a hostel, a bed and breakfast or someone’s home (also known as couch surfing). Vacation rentals are also another option, which can be less expensive and offer more homey comforts.

Have you ever overpaid for a hotel during a major world event? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Tingo.com.

heathrow airportSome of us love crowds. We can be found catching beads at Mardi Gras, hurling tomatoes at Tomatina and, at the London Games, ogling the athletes at the Horse Guards Parade — the venue for beach volleyball.

Not me. Ever since I spent a horrific New Year’s Eve in Times Square, I’ve been a bit crowd-phobic. The cheer isn’t enough to override the crowds and the commotion at the London Games. For the executive editor of our sister site, Cruise Critic, it’s the increased security at Heathrow that keeps her from London, even as a layover to Europe.

“The increased security is sure to add even more chaos to an already chaotic airport — and I still won’t feel completely safe,” Carolyn Spencer Brown told us.

Are You a Travel Olympian?

She’d like to avoid Heathrow this summer, but some airfare deals are making that difficult. “British Airways is offering cheap fares to Europe this summer,” Brown said. “I wonder if people are avoiding Heathrow.”

If they are shunning Heathrow and London, it’s a typical tendency to avoid visiting cities that host the Olympic Games. The Telegraph recently reported that Terry Williamson, chief operating officer of JacTravel, said “normal tourism” in past Olympic host cities post-Games dropped significantly during the events and “took some time to recover.”

Will the traffic, the crowds, the amped-up security, the missiles on rooftops keep you away from London this summer — even as a layover? Or will you be there — in the midst of it all? Vote in our poll below.

– written by Jodi Thompson

suitcase handleOn a recent trip to London, I bought a newspaper and sat on the train reading about the mounting worries surrounding the Olympic Games — with the U.K.’s transport infrastructure already struggling to cope with the influx of extra people.

Athletes visiting the U.K. have had to compete with slow-moving airport security and long queues, while a coach-load of Olympians was recently stuck for four hours in London traffic on its way to the Olympic Village. Onboard was American hurdler Kerron Clement, who tweeted, “Athletes are sleepy, hungry and need to pee.” It seems that, where travel’s concerned, we all have to deal with the same problems, no matter who we are.

This got me thinking of the trials we all face while traveling and made me wonder, could travel be a sport that I could actually compete in? Consider the potential events:

First up, weight lifting. Whether lugging a heavy suitcase from the car to the airport check-in or making the final heave into the overhead bin, we’ve all competed in this event before. It’s familiar territory for the Olympic traveler, and the key is in the preparation. Packing light is one of the hardest things to do, but as the old adage goes, “You never use what you don’t take.”

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Next, the 100-meter sprint to meet check-in. Most airlines require passengers to be at the airport a couple of hours before take-off, which can sometimes catch travelers out, particularly early in the morning. The most successful competitors will have already mapped their route and will diligently avoid all fast food and souvenir concessions, passport and tickets in hand, to get to the desk on time. Some will need to slalom between other vacationers or even indulge in some light wrestling in order to get their times down. You’ve got to want it!

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

Synchronised swimming could be my stumbling block. I hate overcrowded swimming pools! Sometimes it’s nice when arriving at a destination, even before unpacking, to cool down with a dip. Faced with a jam-packed pool, though, I’d likely slink off with my towel to see if there were a quiet beach nearby. Synchronised swimming? Not for me.

10 Things to Do in the First 24 Hours of Your Trip

The relay is tough. I’ve been on trips where I’ve had to transfer trains six times. My budget “saver” tickets meant I had to make every transfer (with very narrow time margins) or risk not getting to my destination at all. The period between trains is always the most stressful, frantically checking platform displays, with one eye on your watch. This can be bad in huge international airports too, with terminals sometimes being up to 15 minutes’ walk away from each other. Smooth transitions make for a smooth journey — it takes an expert traveler to score highly in the relay.

As is traditional, we should end with the marathon. I’ll put my hand up and say that long-haul traveling’s not something I enjoy. My longest trip started with 10 hours in a car, followed by 6 hours on a bus and another hour on a plane. The ultimate long-haul trip is Singapore Airlines’ nonstop flight between Newark Airport and Singapore, which takes a whopping 18.5 hours. I just don’t think I have the stamina.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

How do you compare? Are there any facets of travel at which you are a true Olympian?

– written by Josh Thomas

london heathrow lineHere’s hoping passengers flying into Heathrow Airport last week packed a good book. The lines for immigration at the London airport stretched for half a mile at times, leaving some travelers waiting for nearly two and a half hours, reports Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

The delays — mostly caused by inadequate staffing — are nothing new for London’s largest airport, which has been suffering from lengthy immigration queues for months. (See this April 2012 report from NBC News.) The problem is increasingly worrisome with the Olympics starting in just a few weeks; the Telegraph notes that the Games are expected to bring an extra 650,000 travelers through Heathrow. The immigration minister, Damian Green, has promised to increase the number of workers on duty in time for the Games.

Best Spots to Stay in London

Long immigration lines can happen anywhere, of course, especially with the recent economic recession forcing cuts in budget and staff. In 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster, our own Traveler’s Ed writes, “I recently stood in a line I estimated at more than 1,000 people at Newark airport, oof.” And don’t forget those dreaded airport security lines, which can stretch out just as long as the queues at customs. Just about every experienced traveler can tell a tale of sweating it out as their flight time loomed and their line inched agonizingly along.

What’s the longest airport line you’ve ever had to suffer through?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

big ben londonGet a group of politicians together and they often skip right over the important issues and on to agenda items that leave the rest of us scratching our heads. Remember the U.S. House of Representatives and the “action” that called for French fries served in the restaurants and snack bars run by the House to be renamed freedom fries?

Another equally important proposal was recently put forth by the British Parliament: changing the name of London‘s famous clock tower — known throughout the world as Big Ben — to Elizabeth Tower in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

According to the BBC, the proposal is now fait accompli.

Our Favorite Places to Stay in London

Okay, yes, Big Ben is simply a nickname that originally referred to the bell inside the tower (though few people distinguish between bell, clock and tower these days). And yes, it was even once known as Victoria Tower and is now officially recognized as the Clock Tower. But really, billions of people the world over know the entire tower as Big Ben. Why mess with brand name recognition?

It’s simply not as sexy to snap a photo of oneself in front of the tower and tell friends, “Here’s me in front of Elizabeth Tower.” Though as one writer here said, maybe people will just call it Big Beth.

– written by Dori Saltzman

z hotel london sohoThere were no drawers for my clothes and only two hangers on the quartet of pegs that substituted for a closet, the bed was pushed against the windows (allowing for maximum exposure to the drunken “singing” at 3 a.m. below), and the shower flooded the sink area of the bathroom every morning — but one simple impression remained from my five-night January stay at London‘s Z Hotel.

I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The hotel, which opened in the Soho neighborhood in fall 2011, is decidedly not for everyone. I stayed because it was “only” $220 a night including taxes, which sadly enough is considered dirt-cheap in a city known for its exorbitant costs. But ultimately it was money well spent. The neighborhood, a mass of bars, clubs, restaurants and overlap from the adjacent theater-rich West End, is a London hot spot, with easy reach to the rest of the city.

Those rooms, however, are an acquired taste. They’re tiny by just about any measure; my Z Queen was advertised at being okay for two, but five nights in 150 square feet of space might have ended in divorce if I’d brought my wife. Z Singles, some of which are window-free (think of it as a cruise ship inside cabin without the free buffet), are a mere 85 square feet. The hotel comprises 12 Georgian townhouses interconnected by cooler-than-you lounge areas and glass-railed bridges, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get some fresh air, but still …

See Our Favorite London Hotels

hotel z soho london queenAll in all, my tiny space was incredibly functional, even if I had to pile my clothes on the shelf behind the bed and use my laptop on my, well, laptop (there was no desk). It took me an embarrassing amount of time to discover that I had to point the clicker for the suspended 40-inch TV (awesome!) at the headboard — and not the TV itself. But the free Wi-Fi was ridiculously fast, and I dug the upscale linens, plush duvet and Thierry Mugler toiletries. The ultra-modern shower, sink and toilet occupied the same giant glass-enclosed cube, but once I figured out that I could build a dam out of a towel, I put a damper on the mess that ensued every time I washed.

With the London Olympics approaching, I wondered what the hotel is charging for the expected mad rush. I couldn’t find many nights available for the Z Queens, but those singles are still up for grabs. For Thursday, August 2, to Tuesday, August 7 — five nights during the heart of the Games — singles are running about $360 a night. Not exactly a gold-medal-winning tariff, but, man, you can’t beat that location.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Hotel

Would you stay at the Hotel Z?

– written by John Deiner

I’m from Wales and I’m used to people not knowing where we are. We’re the geographical equivalent of your car keys. They’re around somewhere — in your trouser pocket? Down the side of the sofa?

So often, I’ve heard Wales described as being that bit in between England and Ireland or — worse still — just a part of England itself.

Ireland, England and Scotland are all popular destinations for travelers and have a lot of very different things to offer. But here are some reasons I think you should consider doing something different by visiting Wales instead. It’s not just the U.K.’s smaller brother — it has a lot of unique things to show you of its own!

snowdonia national park wales hiker


Culture: The National Eisteddfod
March 1st is Saint David’s Day. Not many people outside Wales know that. Saint David (or Dewi Sant in Welsh) is our patron saint, and we like to celebrate him by wearing leeks and daffodils pinned to our clothes. It is a traditional day for holding Eisteddfods (cultural festivals and talent competitions), with Welsh poetry, literature, music and arts being exhibited.

A larger, National Eisteddfod is usually held in the summer, showcasing talent from the country that brought the world Dylan Thomas, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton, Roald Dahl and, erm … Tom Jones.

History: The Castle Capital of the World
Wales has a rich history that’s reflected in some of the architecture that remains. Sometimes referred to as the “castle capital of the world,” Wales had, at one point, more than 400 castles. The Welsh’s reputation as a bit of a handful for occupying forces led to fortifications being put up by everybody from the Norman invaders in the 11th century to the English in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Copying this trend, Victorian businessmen commissioned their own “castles” such as the beautiful Castell Coch (the Red Castle) to impress their friends.

The World’s Coolest Castles

Wales was also home to the Romans for a time, and it has the ancient architecture to prove it — such as the 2,000-year-old amphitheaters, baths and barracks in Caerleon, South Wales.

caernarfon castle wales


Sports: Surfing the Severn Bore
Every year, a tidal wave sweeps up the river Severn, attracting surfers, kayakers, paddle boarders and other lunatics from all over the world, who attempt to pit themselves against the river’s tidal range (often cited as being the second largest in the world).

But if that isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of unrivaled hiking routes through the Brecon Beacon mountains or Snowdonia National Park, as well as some of the best rock climbing and abseiling in the U.K., to get visitors closer to the dramatic landscape.

Have a Welsh Cake!
And, while you’re over, have a Welsh cake. You won’t regret it! (They’re similar to scones.) And tucking into a bowl of lamb cawl (stew), a plate of lava bread (seaweed) or some fresh seafood might provide you with an excuse to tackle Mount Snowdon head on.

welsh cakes


Scenery: Land of Contrasts
And the landscape itself? Wales offers mountains and waterfalls in the north and famous valleys in the South, carved out by thousands of years of glacial activity, with pristine beaches, forests and reservoirs in between.

12 Spots to Fall in Love with Travel

Even aside from the noted spots of outstanding natural beauty, such as the Pembrokeshire coast, Snowdonia National Park and the Lleyn Peninsula, Wales is a place where you are never too far away from something to see, do, eat or listen to.

three cliffs bay wales


Have you been to Wales?

– written by Josh Thomas