Where to Travel in 2017

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

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.

Reprinted from Independent Traveler.

12 New Years Travel Resolutions

travel writing

Writer and film producer Patricia Steffy rose early one morning last week in Playa Ocotal, Costa Rica, to walk among the trees and look for monkeys. But instead of searching the trees or watching the sun rise or listening to the surf crash on the beach, she thought about her flight home.

What time should she leave for the airport? What would the weather be like in Minneapolis for her connecting flight? Would the customs app on her phone be accurate?

You would have thought her flight was that afternoon. But it was five days away.

Steffy, who writes the blog Traveling Without a Net, has set a New Year’s resolution to live more in the present and stop worrying about tomorrow. “I let what might happen in five days overshadow what is happening right now,” Steffy says. “It’s probably one of my worst travel tendencies, and I’m hoping to banish it — or at least lessen it — in 2017.”

She’s not the only frequent traveler who has made a travel resolution for 2017.

Adam Groffman, the writer of Travels of Adam, just spent six weeks traveling throughout the United States, so we’re not surprised by his response. “My resolution is to travel a little closer to home,” said Groffman, who is based in Berlin. “More staycations, weekend getaways with friends and family visits.”

Ian Cumming, founder of the international community Travel Massive, is feeling the same way. He said he plans to explore cities close to home — which happens to be the fabulous Sydney, Australia — and not feel like he needs to escape to far-flung places. “There’s most likely something just around the corner in your neighborhood that you never knew about,” he says.

Andrea Gerak, a singer and writer from Kazincbarcika, Hungary, has a goal of taking her 75-year-old mother on her first trip outside the country. “Although this has been a dream for her, she could never do it, sacrificing herself for the family and others. And now it’s her time!” Gerak explains. They likely will go to a seaside destination in Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia or Bulgaria, Gerak says.

As a perpetual traveler, Dariece Swift of Goats on the Road is never home. Yet her 2016 schedule wasn’t everything she wanted it to be because she was overbooked with house-sitting gigs and other commitments. She’s now resolved to keep her schedule freer in 2017. “Next year is going to be a year of continent- and country-hopping, with no responsibilities,” she writes via email from Buenos Aires.

James Feess, half of the duo who writes The Savvy Backpacker, is resolved to spend less money during the year so that he can splurge on more experiences while traveling. “For example, a few months ago we took a Vespa day tour through the Tuscan countryside. It was the highlight of our time in Italy,” Feess writes in an email. “Of course, we can’t afford to do something that extravagant every day, but that extra $200 was money well spent.”

Dan Miller, the writer of the blog Points with a Crew, plans to “stop worrying about finding the absolutely, positively best deal and just start booking trips and going places.”

Marek Bron, the blogger behind Indie Traveller, wants to inject his travels with more spontaneity — the way he did when he first started traveling. “Recently I’ve found myself terribly bogged down in trying to decide my next trip, and falling into the old trap of always trying to find the ‘perfect destination’ and the ‘perfect time to go’,” Bron explains. “For 2017, I’m promising myself to be a bit more spontaneous again.”

A nice complement to that is Kristin Addis’ resolution to “introduce more serendipity” into her travels. How so? Starting in February, the Be My Travel Muse writer is planning to explore East Africa for 45 days without a plan. “I’m going to road trip across a few of the neighboring countries without any plans or agendas to see where it takes me,” says the Southern California-based blogger.

Max Hartshorne, editor of GoNOMAD Travel, plans to take fewer but more meaningful trips in 2017. “I have been taking 12 trips a year for the past 15 years, and while I love it, I need to focus on business matters,” he says. “Now watch: I will get a chance to visit somewhere new and bang, out with this resolution!”

Wendy Redal’s resolution that has more to do with what she does once she return from a trip than during it. The Boulder, Colorado, writer and editor is pledging to organize her travel photos within a week of returning from a trip. “Or else they will continue to languish on my hard drive with the other 20,000 trip pictures I’ve taken in the last God-knows-how-many years,” Redal says.

And after visiting 23 countries in 2016, Collette and Scott Stohler plan to spend more time in the United States in 2017. The Southern California-based couple behind the the luxury and adventure travel blog Roamaroo have national parks on their radar.

“Sometimes,” Collette Stohler says, “it’s not until you leave your home that you truly treasure what was there all along.”

Reprinted from Independent Traveler

My 5 Best Airport Hacks

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Thanks to my perfectionist ways, I tend to do pretty well in airports. I arrive early, wear slip-on shoes that are easy to get on and off at security, organize my carry-on items well and constantly check the departure board for changes related to my flight.

But in the same way some travelers are always on the prowl for discounted getaways, my travel obsession of late is studying new strategies to master the airport experience. Fortunately, there are others out there like me, and they’ve shared their tips to hack your way through the airport.

Here are five tips and recommendations that I’ve found particularly useful lately:

Take screengrabs of your mobile boarding pass: This great article on the New Zealand website Stuffreminded me how finicky some apps can be — and that Murphy’s law dictates they’ll give you the most problems when you’re just about to approach the security officer in line at the airport. Avoid such problems by taking a screengrab of your boarding pass and displaying that. Chances are, it’s much easier to open your phone’s photos folder than to count on an airline’s app to work exactly when you need it to.

Pack an outlet splitter in your carry-on: There’s nothing more frustrating than needing desperately to charge your phone at the airport but finding all the outlets are occupied. Insider smartly suggests packing an outlet splitter, which turns one outlet into two. Then you just ask another tethered device addict to share the outlet and you both get to charge up. Outlet splitters cost just a few dollars and are widely available.

Download airport apps: I have plenty of airline apps on my phone, along with GateGuru, but I never thought to download apps for the airports themselves. Airplane News’ 10 Common Mistakes You’re Making at the Airport reminded me to download the airport apps too. I found this especially useful on a recent trip to seek out a decent place to eat and find an alternate restroom when the one near my gate was closed for cleaning.

Tune in to your brainwaves: In the recent Inc. article 10 Tips From Travel Experts, Flight Attendants and Other Frequent Fliers, an executive in South Carolina recommends a noise reduction and stress relief app called Brain Wave, and I’m absolutely hooked. Not only is it great for chilling out on the plane, but I also find it helps me deal with the anxious masses at the gate.

Pick airport security lines to the left: I should have known this because I’m left-handed, but somehow it slipped my mind: Because most people are right-handed, they tend to gravitate to the right-side security lines. So it’s likely the lines to the left will be shorter, according to our own 18 Best Airport Hacks. This tip has been around for a while, but it’s still holding fast and true.

Reprinted from Independent Traveler

Q&A: Why You Must Go on Vacation

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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 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.

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.

Trust Me: Don’t Sleep Here

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I arrived in Granada, Spain, during the height of tourist season and without a room reservation. After lugging my bag from hostel to hostel for four hours, I finally found a place with availability.

The only room left was a converted closet with a micro-bed. A single lightbulb dangled from the ceiling. To provide air, the proprietor had cut a “window” in the wall, which was covered in a shredded, rusty mesh screen. The window was opposite the shared bathroom, and it seemed like everyone who walked by poked their strange faces through my window, like Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” scene in “The Shining.” I was up all night staring at that nightmarish hole.

If you travel independently, you have to expect a few worst-night sleeps like that. Frequent travelers shared with us some of the scariest, filthiest, coldest, loudest and weirdest nights they’ve ever had on the road.

A Fungus Among Us

During his first around-the-world trip, travel blogger Marek Bron of Indie Traveller found himself in Chiang Rai, Thailand, without a place to stay. “Everywhere was booked out. So I ended up in this obscure hostel that, to this day, remains the worst place I ever stayed,” he said. “It had the ambience of a World War II bunker. Concrete walls, metal lockers, no windows.”

The grimy shower hadn’t been cleaned in months (at least). Not only were there dozens of empty shampoo bottles in it in it, but an apple-sized mushroom was also growing in the corner.

“If you can’t be bothered to at least get rid of the giant mushroom in the shower, you truly don’t care,” Bron said.

Not a Lot of Sleep Happening Here

Writer Ethan Gelber of The Travel Word and his wife arrived by bus in town along the Zambia-Malawi border well after dark. Having little electricity, the unfamiliar town was pitch black. “We didn’t know how far we were from anywhere, so we went to the only place with lights and begged for a room,” Gelber said.

Turns out, it was a brothel.

A Tumble-Dry Night

Emily Harley-Reid of International Expeditions was on a primitive camping trip in the Australian Outback. One night it was so cold that she and her fellow campers relocated in the middle of the night to the campsite’s laundry room. They cuddled up together on the floor around dryers with the doors open.

“We pooled our change, feeding the dryers every hour to stay warm,” she said.

The story had a happy ending. “One guy actually married his sleeping bag buddy from that night. They have two kids now and live in Iowa.”

Creature Comforts

Adventurist Johnny Ward of One Step 4Ward was exhausted after traveling two straight days from Ethiopia to Khartoum, Sudan. He took a room in the first guesthouse he could find. Bad idea.

“It was FILTHY,” Ward wrote in an email. “We flipped the mattresses to see maggots crawling under the bed. Disgusting, but at 1 a.m. in Sudan, you’re happy to have a roof.”

The squirmy insects weren’t the only roommates Ward and his friend had that night. An hour later, they discovered a full-occupancy rats’ nest under the bed. “We managed to switch rooms, [had] the worst night’s sleep imaginable and checked out at 6 a.m,” Ward said.

Strange Noises in the Jungle

Travel blogger Caz Makepeace of Y Travel trekked all day through the Sumatran jungle to see orangutans. Nighttime was memorable, too, but for the wrong reasons: freezing temperatures despite being on the Equator and a tarp that dropped rain on her all night.

“To top it off, our guide told us stories of tiger encounters before we went to sleep,” Makepeace recalled. “During the night, we heard a gigantic crashing [sound] in the jungle, and our guide stayed up for the remainder of the night holding a big knife.”

Don’t Rock the Boat

Dutch blogger Maaike van Kuijk of Travellous World thought it would be an exceptional experience to sleep aboard a riverboat-based hotel in Maastricht, Netherlands. It was anything but, with partiers boarding at 3 a.m. and whooping it up until sunrise, not to mention the tiny bedrooms with dirty sheets, an unclean bathroom and a lousy breakfast.

“I learned my lesson back then: Always read the reviews before you decide on staying somewhere,” van Kuijk said.

Surprise Shower 

Writer Dan Miller of Points with a Crew relayed this ominous tale from a trip to Mobile, Alabama: “The front desk agent behind a barred window told us he had no rooms left, despite our reservation. He told us that he could sell us, and I quote, ‘a room with something wrong with it.’”

Miller bravely took the room and found out that the tub “was completely covered in purple goo.” Needless to say, he skipped his morning shower.

The Worst Can Also Be the Best

Sustainable tourism expert Warren Green’s worst night of sleep was also one of his favorite travel experiences. While trying to cross a river in a remote region on the border of Tanzania and Kenya, his vehicle got lodged in mud up to the axles. A storm was coming, “and the roar of a lion reminded us that a walk … would be foolish,” Green said. He and his guide had no choice but to spend the night.

They gathered wood, siphoned a splash of fuel from the gas tank to start a fire and slept on the floor mats from the van. Lightning flashed in the sky.

“I lay awake drinking in this most uncomfortable night,” Green reminisced. “It was beautiful.”

Originally written for Independent Traveler

EU Postpones Decision about Visas for Americans

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The European Commission has delayed making a decision about whether to halt the program that allows American and Canadian tourists to go to Europe without visas.

The commission originally said it would decide in mid-July about whether to suspend the Schengen visa waiver program for citizens of the United States, Canada and Brunei. But the commission’s leaders decided last week to delay a decision until the fall because talks with the U.S. and Canada are still in progress.

As we reported in April, the Schengen visa program allows Americans, Canadians and the citizens of more than two dozen European countries to travel to and between countries in Europe without obtaining a visa in advance.

A key principle of the program is visa waiver reciprocity, but the United States, Canada and Brunei were not abiding by that. The U.S. government requires the citizens of five European countries (Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Cyprus and Croatia) to obtain an advance visa, while Canada mandates such visas for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens. Brunei formerly required Croatians to get them.

A recent statement from the European Commission notes that Brunei has lifted the visa requirement for Croatian citizens. However, there’s been no meaningful progress on full reciprocity with Canada or the U.S. Talks with Canada will continue at a summit in late October, while U.S. government officials indicated to the E.U. that there would be “little chance of evolution” on the subject before the presidential and Congressional elections in November.

The E.U. still could decide not to suspend the program at all, according to the Wall Street Journal. If the E.U. decides there would be significant negative impacts on the European countries and its citizens, then it can keep the Schengen program alive without full reciprocity. The European Commission did acknowledge that the number of U.S. and Canadian visitors to Europe would decrease if visas were required, leading to “a considerable economic loss.”

Stay tuned for further updates.

Originally written for Independent Traveler

Take ‘Strol’ for a Stroll

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During his first visit to Rome, Serguei Sofinski and his wife explored the city on foot after conducting extensive guidebook and app research and charting what he thought was the most interesting route. But inevitably, an attractive side street or tucked-away fountain not listed in any guidebook would draw their attention.

“When you travel, you want to use every moment to absorb and enjoy the destination you are exploring,” Sofinski says. “There were plenty of apps showing directions to major sights or suggesting predefined street tours, but none provided a scenic route that could begin from anywhere.”

So Sofinski, a Harvard Business School grad and San Francisco-based software expert, created one.

His travel app and website, Strol, provides travelers with a scenic walking route in just about any city or town on the planet, even the ones guidebooks gloss over. Punch in your desired destination, and the program gives you a clearly marked and interesting route on a simple-to-read map. Points of interest — including lesser-known monuments, buildings and other sites — are marked with a star; touch or click on it to see photos and basic factual information about the attraction.

You can also chart out a route based on the amount of time you want to walk. Let’s say you’re staying at the Four Seasons in Buenos Aires and you have 30 minutes to kill before meeting a friend for dinner. Type in your location and select a half-hour, and Strol will recommend the most scenic route.

The app uses crowdsourced information, so it’s constantly evolving and adding new attractions, large and small. Routes are also scored, based on what ordinary users (not guidebook writers) find interesting, so you get an idea how engaging the route will be. My sample half-hour stroll through Buenos Aires scored 3.20, whereas an hour-long jaunt starting in Times Square, New York, scored a 6.02, with more than 50 points of interest noted. (According to the Strol website, the most interesting destinations are scored at 7 or higher.)

Though the algorithms behind it are very complicated, Strol is a simple-to-use app that makes wandering more interesting. And it will only get better in the future as more attractions are added and more users score routes.

Would you give Strol a try?

Originally written for Independent Traveler