Independent traveler

Love to travel, but hate tours? This blog offers insight on how to go it alone, from safe accommodations to seeing the best, and maybe the worst. After all, independent travel is an adventure. Flexibility and traveling on a budget are critical. No five-stars or all-inclusives. So hop aboard. Learn to enjoy travel at your own pace and price. Meet other adventurers like yourself and mingle with the locals. Remember: You may travel alone, but you wonʼt be lonely.

The “Land of Enchantment”, New Mexico, Pecos National Historical Park. - 9/22/2012 4:27 pm

All border crossings are not created equal... - 8/19/2012 7:58 am

Avoid Interstates, enjoy travel through middle America... - 8/12/2012 6:12 am

Right now is the best time to travel the Alaska Highway. - 8/4/2012 5:45 pm

Fifty Shades of Grey becoming a travel phenomenon. - 7/29/2012 6:46 am

Winners of the annual Independent Traveler Photo Contest... - 7/21/2012 10:00 pm

Independent Traveler photo contest, submit your favorite travel photo here... - 7/1/2012 10:38 am

How to get a good seat on your next flight. - 6/24/2012 9:26 am

Beijing after the Olympics...

The gate to the Forbidden City flanking Tiananmen Square.The gate to the Forbidden City flanking Tiananmen Square.

I haven't been to Beijing for over ten years and there are a lot of changes especially since the Olympics. Number one is the cost of visiting. Taxi drivers are use to Western foreigners paying big bucks and when you hand them more than the fare expecting change, you have to argue to get anything back.

Tickets to all local activities have soared. Minimum cost to get into an acrobatic show, $30 per person. Cost for a large pizza at a hole in the wall restaurant, $20 and given the condition of the place one crosses their fingers it won't make you sick.

The upside is Beijing is a world class city. Visiting mammoth Tiananmen Square with the surrounding government buildings and impressive antiquity, the Forbidden City, a visitor icon gives you goosebumps. It's history in the making and history from the past.

There aren't many Western tourists here right now as the weather is still rather cold and the trees have yet to bloom. There are however droves of local tourists visiting their capital city.

After taking 35 hours to arrived (18 in airtime), I spend yesterday walking the Square and scoping out the Forbidden City. Today it's off to see Pandas and take in an acrobatic performance.

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What happens if I have to be medi-vaced out of a country?

Q. If I get sick or am in an accident in another country and need to be taken back home, does my medical insurance cover the cost?...S

A. Good question. Most medical health insurance plans don't cover travel to or within foreign countries for medical purposes. On my recent trip to Guatemala, I got violently ill and couldn't keep any liquids down for about 15 hours.

When I met an American doctor and told her about getting sick, she said I was lucky as she had met a young gal that had gotten severely dehydrated and had to be medi-vaced back to the States. The cost was over $100,000 and she was responsible.

The doctor said most medical plans don't cover this service outside of the U.S. She recommended checking out for a reasonable plan.

When I checked my medical coverage I found that it does not cover evacuation costs from a foreign country. Some medical services are covered, but the stipulations are complicated.

I went to and found a good inexpensive plan that covers the gap in my medical coverage. I was extremely impressed with the service. I initially looked at the website and then called the 800 number to talk to a real person outside of Philadelphia.

I highly recommend for travel insurance. They have many different types to cover all travel needs and are a very customer service company with quick efficient responses to questions.

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TravelFlash: Mean Spirit(ed) Airlines first to charge for carryon bags.

You got it right. Now charging for carryon bags.

In a move to make passengers even madder and to reduce carryon luggage, Spirit Airlines will be charging for carryons to be placed in the overhead bin.

$45 for your first bag in the overhead bin. If passengers pay upon check in or by phone in advance, the charge is reduced to $30. You can even join a club and reduce it to only $20. If your bag fits under your seat, there's no charge.

Read all about the new charges this Miramar, Florida based carrier has concocted.

Do you think they will fly?

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Do we have a responsibility to the places we travel?

Beautiful Lake Atitlan is dieing.Beautiful Lake Atitlan is dieing.

Last month I visited Guatemala and spent some time at Lake Atitlan. It was my second visit the first being over 30 years ago. I hardly recognized the place.

The vibrant Mayan culture and beautiful Lake Atitlan its nurturer are both dieing. I was greatly saddened and still am. I look back on my visit with a heavy heart.

While staying on the shores of Lake Atitlan, I became violently ill. In retrospect after learning more about the Lake's poisoned water and it's use for showers, washing, swimming pools and virtually everything except drinking I believe it caused my week-long sickness.

Lake Atitlan's blight is not common knowledge, but it is documented and people do care. This week a new website came online where the world can help Save Lake Atitlan. I encourage you and everyone who travels to go to this website and learn how you can help.

We as tourists add to the problem and we as compassionate people of greater means, than the poverty stricken Mayans, can help solve it.

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Sunday Travel Feature, Floating England's Llangollen Canal by narrow boat

Our narrow boat, the Romantic Princess.Our narrow boat, the Romantic Princess.

Check out the Travel page (E4) in today's print edition of the News for the story on my canal boat float in the U.K "A slow boat: Adventures, misadventures while traveling through England and Wales on canals."

Or you can read the online edition by clicking here

To learn more about narrow boats for hire check out Maestermyn Cruises.

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A reminder that today is Passport Day

A passport is required for travel to Mexico and Canada as well as a myriad of other countries.A passport is required for travel to Mexico and Canada as well as a myriad of other countries.

Today is national Passport Day which means you can visit any regional passport office and apply for a passport in person without an appointment.

For we Alaskans the U.S. Postal Service is extending its hours for passport processing from noon to 9pm at Anchorage's main office near the Anchorage International Airport on 4141 Postmark Drive.

You may say big deal as you already have a passport, but I advise you to look at its expiration date. Many counties will not allow you entrance unless your passport is valid for 60 days or more. Countries vary so if you are anticipating international travel, be sure to check your destination's rules.

If your passport does expire within sixty days, today is a great day to apply for a new one.

For application requirements click here. You can also call 800-ADK-USPS for more information.

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Flight attendants are not luggage handlers so please limit your carryons

The Association of Flight Attendants is worried about passenger safety and injuries among their fellow attendants.

Since airlines started charging for bags, passengers are bringing more onboard to the point of overloading luggage racks leading to baggage falling onto passengers.

Flight attendants are suffering neck and muscle injuries from trying to help passengers stow items in the overhead bins. As a result the union is talking to the government for help to enforce current guidelines and restrictions or develop new ones.

What can you do? We all know when we are trying to sneak onboard extra weight or extra bags. Don't! Be considerate and stick to the rules for your safety and others, mainly the flight attendants who are the ultimate ones to suffer.

I would also suggest that we lobby the airlines to stop nickel and dimeing passengers. Grow up guys and just increase your ticket prices. Who wouldn't mind paying an extra ten dollars to get rid of the stupid policy of charging for bags. Go back to the old policy of two free bags weighing 50 pounds or less each.

And while you're at it why not charge another $10 a ticket for onboard meals. Many of us Alaskan's have to travel on two or three flights to get where we're going. As a result, we don't always have time to eat before we get onboard nor when we transition through an airport.

By doing just these two things think of the money you, the airlines, would save. I haven't talked to one person who would object to paying more to turn back the clock. Don't you guys get it?

In the interim, all of those of you that fly please take into consideration the risk involved when you take a heavy or large carryon. It's the flight attendants who pay. And believe me, they don't like the airline policies any more than we the flying public do.

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TravelFlash: National Passport Day, Sat. March 27

A passport is required for travel to Mexico and Canada as well as a myriad of other countries.A passport is required for travel to Mexico and Canada as well as a myriad of other countries.

FYI, Saturday is national Passport Day which means you can visit any regional passport office and apply for a passport in person without an appointment.

For we Alaskans the closest regional office is in Seattle.

The only incentive for applying on Saturday seems to be that you don't need an appointment. Maybe that's a big deal I don't know. However, if you need a passport or need to renew your old one and are in Seattle with nothing better to do (like shopping in a real city and using your sales tax exemption) you can go to the regional office and start the process.

For application requirements click here.

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If my passport expires within six months can I travel now?

Q. Our passports expire in July 2010. Are they valid to travel to Seville, Spain next week leaving March 24 for five days...Ruth

A. You really need to check with the Spanish Consulate in the U.S. Many countries require that your passport be valid for six months when you arrive. Others accept passports that are valid for ninety days. Some have no restrictions. Here's a site on the web you can check for Spanish entry requirements.

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Should you take out trip insurance?

Check out medical and trip cancellation insurance to avoid out of pocket costs.Check out medical and trip cancellation insurance to avoid out of pocket costs.

On my recent trip I encounter a bout with amoebic dysentery. I recovered after getting medication, but was very ill for five days during which I couldn’t keep much liquid down. I later ran into an American doctor who was traveling in Guatemala as well and she told me I was lucky that I didn’t get dehydrated and hospitalized. She told me about a young woman who did and ended up having to be flown back to the States for treatment at her own expense.

Scary! I don’t carry additional medical health insurance incase something traumatic happens. The doctor recommended that I check out for affordable coverage. I did and found that the site compares rates from 250 different companies for health insurance coverage to covering student travel.

The Wall Street Journal has advice on how to shop for insurance coverage.

When I got home from my trip, I learned that a friend who was supposed to be on a cruise missed her flight and as a result missed her cruise. She had trip cancellation insurance and is glad that she spent the extra money to get it. Check out the highly recommended to cover the unexpected on your next trip. I sure will.

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Check out my vacation photo album, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala

My favorite place, Tikal archaeological site in northern Guatemala.My favorite place, Tikal archaeological site in northern Guatemala.
I just uploaded 18 new photos into my photo gallery from my recent trip.

My seven week trip to Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala had its ups and downs. The highlights were exploring the archaeological ruins of Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City for a week. Normally I only spend a couple of days at any one site and getting to leisurely explore Teotihuacan for a week was a real treat. The sunny skies and warm temps only added to my delight.

Visiting the village of Copan Ruinis outside of the Mayan archaeological ruins of the same name was fantastic as well. Honduras was new territory and a welcome adventure.

The Mayan archaeologica site of Tikal in northern Guatemala was the highlight of my trip. Woven into the jungle surroundings the site is mystical. Hearing Howler Monkeys and seeing a Toucan in the wild added to my experience.

Lake Atilan was a real disappointment. The villages surrounding the Lake are dirty and the Lake itself incredibly polluted. What was once a vibrant local culture has virtually disappeared after having been steeped in foreign influences over the years. Tourists are viewed as walking wallets and there is always someone waving an item in your face to make a sale. It didn't use to be that way.

Guatemala's former capital Antigua, while cleaner and restored to it's former charm, suffers from the malady of vendors swarming tourists like bees on honey. It is very tiresome and takes away from appreciating the local culture.

Would I go back? In a heartbeat I'd return to Mexico, Honduras and Tikal. As for Lake Atitlan and the rest of Guatemala, no. The country is far too dirty, crowded and culturally lacking not to mention overpriced for decent food and accommodations.

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Rub a dub dub, washing clothes while traveling…

I’m on the fifth load of wash since returning from seven weeks on the road. Everything is getting a washing both dirty and clean clothes.

A friend asked me how I wash clothes on the road. Good question.

The most expensive way is to have the hotel do it. We’re talking $2.50 for casual pants, $1 for a pair of socks, $5 for a dress and other outrageous prices. So when packing for a long trip I take into consideration clothes that are easy to hand wash. It saves money in the long run.

Depending upon the country you are visiting, you may find a “lavanderia”, the Spanish word for a place that will do you wash for you. We paid about 40 cents a pound on our last trip, which was a bargain. One B&B we stayed in did one load of laundry, wash and dry, for $10 US. The problem is mixing darks and lights if you don’t have enough of each for two full loads. Ten dollars for a half a load or less is spendy.

I bring along sample, trial or travel sizes of detergent and hand wash many things. My husband packs a nylon rope to string across the room for drying. Or you can opt for a nifty travel clothesline.

An even better trick than hand washing in a tiny bathroom sink is shower washing. I’ve washed capris, lightweight tees and undies while showering. After drying off with the towel, I wrap and roll the clothing in it to get out the extra moisture. Sometimes I pack along a travel towel that is great for absorbing excess water plus it dries quickly.

Some countries have coin operated Laundromats, but I have found this convenience the exception. When traveling with three children I found them in Seoul and large Japanese cities.

For hand washing bring along a universal sink stopper (most sinks don't have stoppers), laundry detergent (hand soap will work in a pinch) and a travel clothesline or rope. Plus plan ahead. Don’t wash several things on an overnight stay. Wait until you have a couple of days to insure things dry.

Next question?

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Mexico City, still a fantastic city and not as crime ridden as it is made out to be...

The magnificent grandeur  inside the cathedral in Mexico City's historic plaza.The magnificent grandeur inside the cathedral in Mexico City's historic plaza.

I'm on an unexpected layover in Mexico City due to my delayed flight from Guatemala City yesterday that resulted in missing my connection to Los Angeles on Alaska Airlines.

However, this is a blessing in disguise. I really love Mexico City (not driving here). I'm staying in the historic center in a lovely little hotel, Hotel Cathedral. It is in a great location, one block from the main plaza, and is reasonably priced, safe and clean. A great combination.

My month in Guatemala left me a bit perplexed. I found the country to be frenetic, over populated, deforested with a unstructured political system. When you add in all the foreigners in Guatemala with different and sometimes conflicting interests such as missionaries, medical teams, educators, business owners and drifters to name a few, I'm walking away with mixed feelings.

I find Mexico in general very cohesive with a strong culture and little outside influences to disturb. The people overall are loving and gentle. I've always enjoyed visiting the country.

So it is nice to be back for 24 hours and enjoy this wonderful city with all its history. Unfortunately, the internal crime problem gives the whole country a bad name, but when you are a visitor if you take normal precautions, the same ones you would in any large American city, you don't have to be paranoid.

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Chicken buses, local fare in Guatemala

Chicken buses employee a driver and scout to watch for passengers, load luggage and signal stops.Chicken buses employee a driver and scout to watch for passengers, load luggage and signal stops.

Ever wondered where America's used school buses end up. One place is Guatemala where they are revamped into public transportation buses called Camionetas and nicknamed Chicken buses.

Occasionally I've spotted a school bus in its original state with the school district blackened out. More commonly the buses are pimped out with flashy chrome and bright paint.

Here two Chicken bus drivers play chicken on a corner that doesn't allow room for both to turn at once.Here two Chicken bus drivers play chicken on a corner that doesn't allow room for both to turn at once.

They are bought at auction in the States and driven to Guatemala where their transformation begins. New manual engines replace automatics, air brakes replace hydraulic, wider bench seats are installed to accommodate more people and luggage racks inside and out are a few of the changed amenities.

But watch our if you are a pedestrian. The drivers roar though the countryside and cites belching black smoke.

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Weekends are market days in Guatemala.

A vendor in Santiago, Lake Atitlan, who sells local dress.A vendor in Santiago, Lake Atitlan, who sells local dress.

It's Saturday and the vendors are out hawking their goods to tourists. After nearly a month in Guatemala from the highlands to the lowlands, I'm looking for something unusual, but didn't find it today.

Guatemala is known for it textiles, but upon closer inspection they are basically all alike. One table runner I inspected in Tikal, hundreds of miles northwest of Antigua where I am now, is identical to one I saw this morning splayed on the road in front of a cathedral.

Now the one in Tikal was handmade by the vendor's mother. It took her four weeks to make. The one I saw today was made by the vendor herself, but only took two weeks to make. Amazing that they are the same color and same pattern.

Typical "handmade" goods sold throughout Guatemala by the thousands, all alike.Typical "handmade" goods sold throughout Guatemala by the thousands, all alike.

I've also seen the same runner in a multitude of shops. (Why does country of origin, China, keep popping into my mind.) Everyone claims to have handmade all their goods, but in reality it would be nearly impossible given the large inventory they all carry.

Plus, I'm perplexed as to why they all sell virtually the same goods, table runners, handbags, earrings and belts. Very little variety when you get down to really looking.

I'm guessing that most tourists are on a fly by vacation and don't really notice the redundancy. Guess that's a plus if you're a shopper and just want to pick up something "handmade" by the person selling it.

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Antigua, Guatemala's jewel...

The cathedral in Antigua's central plaza just after sunset.The cathedral in Antigua's central plaza just after sunset.

After the hustle and bustle of Chichicastenango, I'm enjoying a nice respite in Antigua, a fortyfive minute drive from Guatemala City and first capital of the country.

Antigua is a UNESCO world heritage site and has retained it colonial feel and presence. It's a place that wealthy Guatemalans buy vacation homes and visit on the weekends. It's widely known to tourists and a majority of its economy, if not all, is a result of the tourists' dollars.

Some tourists base themselves here and take day journeys to Chichi and Lake Atitlan. The city is also known for its proliferation of Spanish schools. Students come from all corners of the world to immerse themselves in the language.
Antigua is known for its beautiful churches such as La Merced.Antigua is known for its beautiful churches such as La Merced.

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Chichicastenango, the day after in photos...

It can't be the same town if you compare Chichicastenango to the frenzy of yesterday with thousands of vendors trying to sell thousands of tourists their goods, but it is. The streets are quiet except for the roar of chicken buses (the local name) speeding by leaving stifling black smoke in their wake.

Here's how things look today.
Locals shop from the back end of pickup trucks carrying Western dress used clothing. ValueVillage discards?Locals shop from the back end of pickup trucks carrying Western dress used clothing. ValueVillage discards?

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Guatemala's most famous Sunday maket, Chichicastenango

Sunday market activities in Chichicastenango begin with rituals on the steps of Santo Tomas.Sunday market activities in Chichicastenango begin with rituals on the steps of Santo Tomas.

The frenzy started well before sunrise this morning. Local villagers by the thousands got on buses with literally tons of vegetables and textiles heading to Chichicastenango to sell their goods. Tourists by the hundreds got on buses to Chichi to watch the locals and buy their goods.

Chichicastanango's Sunday market is the single biggest draw for locals and tourists alike in Guatemala.
Thousands of pounds of vegetables and fruits are hauled by hand into Chichi to be sold at this vegetable market.Thousands of pounds of vegetables and fruits are hauled by hand into Chichi to be sold at this vegetable market.

But the market isn't the only thing that Chichi is known for. The peoples' spiritual practices are unique. When the Spaniards conquered the land in the 1500s they also brought along Catholicism. What is practiced here today is a unique blend of the people's former pagan beliefs and Christianity.

Visitor beware. Fire crackers ward off the evil and fires attract the spirits to whom the living ask favors be it prayers for health, wealth or happiness. I'm not privy to the complexities of today's practices, but what I witnessed this morning were rituals that I know are hundreds if not thousands of years old.

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Amebic dysentery, when a good trip turns bad...

I think I am back among the living after a grueling five days. Early Monday afternoon I got nauseated and started vomiting. To spare the ugly details, I was very ill for about about 18 hours. Unfortunately I continued to be nauseated with number ten pains coming and going in my stomach.

Yesterday, Thursday, I was able to get to a pharmacy that employed a doctor and was diagnosed with amebic dysentery. I't Friday and I'm on the second day of my three day anti-parasite, antibiotic medication.

This is my first day back online. I've virtually been out of it, but in the process have developed incredible compassion for those people who do suffer from this terrible condition and do not have the means to get treated.

Guatemala has many problems with hygiene like other developing countries. Here on the shores of Lake Atitlan it's major. The communities use the polluted lake water as their major source. Purified water is available, but expensive. I was told that 80% of the lake was at one time contaminated. Even if the surrounding communities stop dumping their wastes into the lake today, it will take at least ten years to recover.

I don't know where or how I picked up the parasite, but I'm just happy to be on the mend.

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Great birding in Honduras...

Two scarlet macaws carry on at the park. Macaws mate for life.Two scarlet macaws carry on at the park. Macaws mate for life.
I've been seeing the most marvelous birds on my trip to Honduras and Guatemala up close at the Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve and wild in the jungle.

To read about Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve, click this link for my story that appeared on the travel page in Sunday's pr

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