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paris catacombs skullsToday is Valentine’s Day, and travel sites will be filling your inbox with lists of romantic hotels and destinations. All will feature wonderful things for couples to do together, and dreamy suites with large bathtubs — including some shaped like hearts and filled with Champagne and chocolates.

But isn’t all of that a little … cliche? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to get an e-mail for Valentine’s Day recommending that you and your loved one visit the Parisian catacombs or tour a historic prison? We think so. We’ve put together a list of four destinations to visit that wouldn’t normally be associated with Valentine’s Day.

Feel free to add your own to the list!

The Parisian Catacombs: A romantic hangout for the “Twilight”-loving crowd it might be, but for most of us the 18th-century catacombs located beneath the streets of Paris are a bit creepy. Still, what better place to be if you want an excuse to cuddle really close to your loved one?

Best Places to Stay in Paris

Alcatraz: Also referred to as “The Rock” (hmm, that seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day, actually), Alcatraz is a small island in San Francisco that housed an infamous federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Couples looking for an illicit thrill can give each other a peck on the lips in the (reportedly haunted) cell in which Al Capone once lived.

Verona, Italy: Actually not an unromantic destination at all, Verona is a city located in northeast Italy with an artistic heritage and Roman ruins. Alas, Verona also is known as the place Romeo and Juliet met their doomed end.

Intercourse, Pennsylvania: A rather appropriately named town for Valentine’s Day, don’t you think? This quaint tourist town in Amish Country was used during the filming of the Harrison Ford movie “Witness.” Visitors can check out the local crafts, take a buggy ride or visit the Quilt Museum.

12 Places Every Chocolate Lover Should Visit

– written by Dori Saltzman

There’s a lot going on in February. At this point, most people are pretty excited for some Presidents’ Day downtime and the impending flowers and chocolates that Valentine’s Day will bring. But what about Groundhog Day? Even though it’s already passed, it’s still something to celebrate, particularly if you’re in an area of the United States that’s prone to large amounts of snow.

The quirky holiday and its lovable mascot have put Punxsutawney Phil’s home town on the map. Tens of thousands of visitors come to Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to watch the little groundhog make his annual appearance each February 2. Legend says that if he sees his shadow when he emerges from his hole in a tree stump, we’re in for six more weeks of winter weather. (In case you missed it, Punxsutawney Phil told us spring will come early this year.)

punxsatawney phil lonsome george


Phil isn’t the only animal to draw curious tourist crowds. A man-eating crocodile named Lolong was a prime attraction in Bunawan Township, Agusan del Sur province, in the Philippines, until February 10, when he died at the approximate age of 60. The town’s mayor and other dismayed locals are now planning an official funeral for the reptile. Lolong measured more than 20 feet in length, weighed about a ton and had been accused of eating several residents before townspeople embraced his presence as a tourist attraction.

In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

Another famous animal — and tourist favorite — passed away last year. Lonesome George, a one-of-a-kind tortoise who was first spotted on the island of Pinta (part of the Galapagos Islands) in 1971, gained notoriety for being the last of his kind in existence. Although several attempts were made to mate him after his relocation to Santa Cruz Island, none was successful. George died in June 2012, driving his particular species to extinction. At the time of his death, he was estimated to be more than 100 years old.

Which famous animal is your favorite? Be sure to tell us in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot is of ice skaters in Central Park, New York City — one of our favorite places to be during the holidays.

ice skating new york city central park winter skyline



Photos: Away from Home for the Holidays

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com, and we might feature it on our blog. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Six Super Spots to Stay in the Big Apple

– written by Sarah Schlichter

new york city taxiI doubt there’s anyone who’d disagree that travel would be more enjoyable if it were cheaper. Regardless of how large your budget may be, it’s never fun to incur all the tiny expenses that come with jaunting to and fro.

Since Thanksgiving is the busiest travel period, we’re excited about this: A new taxi-sharing service called Shairporter has rolled out in New York City, allowing travelers to coordinate rides to and from local airports with others who are going to the same places. (The site plans to expand to other cities in the future.)

Users can either search for rides that match their needs or post rides — complete with start and stop destinations and approximate cab fares — to get matched with others who are going the same way. Then, they meet up and share expenses. Not only is it more environmentally friendly to share a cab than to take one alone, but it’s also more economical. Membership is free.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

Sound sketchy? Users sign up through Facebook in order to help keep the community safe while maintaining privacy, and they can go back to review fellow travelers after sharing rides so others will know about their experiences.

If you’re interested, now’s the time to try it out. All cab rides on Wednesday, November 21, will be paid for by Shairporter for anyone who signs up on the site in advance.

Would you share a ride? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot of the aurora borealis was snapped in Alaska.

northern lights aurora borealis alaska tent camping



Planning a Trip to Alaska

Do you have an inspirational photo you want to share with our readers? E-mail it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Winter Vacations Without the Skis

– written by Sarah Schlichter

democrat republicanDeciding the direction of your country for the next four years is heavy business and not something we at IndependentTraveler.com have any interest in analyzing. But examining the differences in travel styles between Republicans and Democrats – that’s much more up our alley. Turns out we differ more than you’d think.

The findings, released by Hotels.com, revealed that Republicans are more likely to stay close to the 50 United States, while Democrats are more willing to venture further afield. In fact, a whopping 86 percent of Republican travelers prefer to stay within the U.S., Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean, while Democrats are 11 percent more likely to visit Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.

Democrats are also more free-wheeling with their money. According to Hotels.com, “Democrats admitted to spending slightly more on items such as clothing and accessories, as well as drinks with friends and family while traveling for business.”

Destination: Washington D.C.

While Democrats are more willing to spend on things, Republicans would rather spend more to extend their vacation. Of the 1,000 respondents to the survey, Hotels.com found that Republicans outweighed Democrats by 11 percent when asked if they would call out sick to get an extra vacation day.

But Republicans and Democrats also are alike in some of their business travel habits. Both are just as likely to expense amenities such as hotel Wi-Fi, flight upgrades, room service and upscale dining.

And both are almost equally unlikely to pilfer an item from a hotel. Ninety-three percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats said they had never stolen from a hotel.

16 Ways You Know You’re Addicted to Travel

– written by Dori Saltzman

yardley pa canalWelcome to our new Friday Free-for-All here on “Have Tips, Will Travel” — a dedicated discussion post where we invite your responses! This week, we’re chatting about what to see in your home town.

There’s nothing better than arriving in a new place and getting advice and insight from a local. So if a traveler from afar came to your own neck of the woods, how would you use your expert knowledge to give him or her the best possible experience?

I’ll start. My home town is the sleepy riverfront borough of Yardley, PA, population 2,434. On a nice day, the first place I’d take a visitor would be the towpath beside the Delaware Canal, part of a state park that runs all the way through town and beyond. The towpath is a favorite spot for locals to jog, bike and walk their dogs — and it’s a great place to look for wildlife too. Aside from the perennial ducks and geese, I’ve seen turtles, deer, great blue herons, swans, raccoons, even a fox.

Now it’s your turn. What would you show a visitor in your home town?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

singapore changi airport movie theaterWhen vetting flights and possible layovers, I take my options for connecting airports very seriously. What’s the distance between connecting gates? How speedy is immigration? Can I find something halfway decent to eat and a quiet, clean spot to sit and wait?

The availability of ultra-hip technology never entered the picture for me, until I recently discovered two airports where it’s actually fun to have a layover.

LaGuardia International Airport, New York City
Mention LaGuardia, and you can pretty much be guaranteed a grimace, wince or groan. But perhaps no longer. LaGuardia has Botoxed its image with the installation of 2,500 iPads throughout Terminals C and D. Tall tables with stools (like those you’d find in a bar) are anchored with iPads that are free for anyone to use.

The Best Airports for Layovers

Scroll the Internet, post on Facebook, play games, monitor your flight — even order a fancy cured beef panini and a beer and have them delivered directly to your table from a nearby eatery. The iPads are a great way to kill time.

(Good news for Minneapolis and Toronto: They’re both scheduled to see similar iPad installations in the coming months.)

Changi Airport, Singapore
Changi is a techie’s dream. The airport won the 2012 World Airport Award for best leisure amenities from Skytrax, a British airline data compiler that runs an annual airport passenger satisfaction survey in 160 countries. The Wi-Fi is free and signals are Speedy Gonzales fast. More than 500 free Internet stations are sprinkled throughout the concourses and gates.

But what’s happening in Terminal 2 is the main attraction. The terminal houses an entertainment center where you can distract yourself with Xbox 360′s, Playstation 3′s and other gaming stations. There are also free, 24-hour movie theaters (in Terminal 2 and also in Terminal 3).

9 Ways to Make the Most of Your Layover

And if all of that isn’t cool enough, the airport has 3D and 4D motion simulators that show eight movies with “visual, sound, motion and environmental effects.”

A long layover has never been more fun.

– written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Martin Luther King, Jr. In honor of today’s 49th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we’re exploring five places you can visit where the man himself once slept, walked, spoke, protested and generally inspired a nation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site (Georgia)
This historic national landmark is actually a conglomerate of several sites in Atlanta, Georgia, that include Dr. King’s boyhood home on Auburn Avenue as well as Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both he and his father were pastors. Don’t miss the visitor center’s museum that chronicles the American Civil Rights Movement. Another interesting must-see is Fire Station No. 6, which houses an exhibit on desegregation within the Atlanta Fire Department.

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church (Alabama)
A historic building in and of itself – having been founded in 1877 in a slave trader’s pen – this small Baptist church was forever entered into the annals of history by its 20th pastor, Dr. King, who served from 1954 to 1960. Most famously, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950′s was directed by Dr. King from his church office. In 1980, a beautiful mural was painted outside the church depicting scenes from Dr. King’s journey from Montgomery to Memphis. Tours of the church can be privately arranged.

Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail (Alabama)
This 54-mile trail commemorates the route of the 1965 Voting Rights March beginning at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma. It includes the Edmond Pettus Bridge where on March 7, 1965 marchers were tear-gassed and beaten by police offers. The march, led by Dr. King, began again a few weeks later with protesters joining from around the country. The five-day trek ended at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery with several notable speeches, including one by Dr. King. The entire route is a component of the National Trails System and is administered by the National Park Service. Several interpretive centers are placed along the trail.

Slideshow: The Eight Best U.S. Road Trips

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (Alabama)
A large museum and research center, the Civil Rights Institute is located in Birmingham’s Civil Rights District, which is home to the 16th Street Baptist Church. Dr. King was a frequent speaker at the church, which was also the site of the horrific fire bombing that killed four young girls. The Institute’s permanent exhibit is a self-directed walk through Birmingham’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.

National Civil Rights Museum (Tennessee)
Located in Memphis, Tennessee, the National Civil Rights Museum is a complex of museums built around the former Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. In addition to a museum tracing the Civil Rights Movement, visitors can see the site where James Earl Ray first confessed to the shooting, as well as the rooming house where the murder weapon was found.

Bonus Site: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial (Washington D.C.)
While Dr. King may never have visited the actual site of the memorial created in his honor, Washington D.C. is where he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 in front of some 250,000 listeners. The official address of the monument, 1964 Independence Avenue S.W., commemorates the year that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.

Visit the Southeast Message Board

– written by Dori Saltzman

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