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. gloria.independenttraveler@gmail.com

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

Is the lowest airfare really more expensive than you think?

Maybe it is if you don’t take into consideration baggage fees, some as high as $35 for the first bag, and fees charged if you change your ticket or cancel it.

Then there are the onboard food and beverage costs. For we Alaskans this can be very expensive when you don't have time to get food on the ground due to short connection times. Some airlines even charge for pillows and blankets and select seats such as aisle or exit row.

In the first quarter of 2010, the airlines reportedly collected $1.3 billion in baggage fees and reservation changes and cancellation fees. Wow!

To avoid getting hammered by costs not revealed when you shop online or even buy from your local travel agent, find out how much the carrier charges for bags, changes to your ticket and cancellation fees.

The Federal Government Accounting Office, GAO, just released a report on their investigation of the fees the airlines are charging.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is proposing that the airlines as well as online ticket agencies and other sellers of air tickets list baggage and other fees on their websites to allow consumers to make informed decisions when purchasing air tickets. As it stands, the lowest fare isn’t always the least expensive.

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Are you storing all your digital photos on memory cards?

Storing your digital photos on memory cards is not a good idea! It’s unnecessarily expensive and the images are not easy to find.

Several online sites can help you determine a much better method. For the basics check out WikiHow.com and SmallNotebook.org. For a more advanced process see: BasicDigitalPhotography.com.

Here’s what I do:

1. I immediately load photos onto my hard drive after going through them and deleting the ones that I know are bad.
2. I place them into a folder in MyPictures if using Windows or put them into iPhoto on my Mac.
3. Then I go through the photos and delete the ones that I don’t want to keep (i.e. poor lighting, bad expressions, etc.)
4. Then I erase my camera’s memory card so that I’m ready to take new photos. If on a trip, I use several memory cards for storage and then erase them after I get home.
5. I no longer back up photos on CDs. I use a thumb/flash drive drive for photos that I will have developed. For long term storage, I use a 500 GB external drive.

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Are travel agencies becoming extinct?

Online travel purchases for flights, hotels and tours is going to get even easier with Google’s acquisition of ITA’s flight infomation software. ITA’s software allows users to easily compare prices between airlines, various search engines such as Kayak.com and online travel agencies such as Orbitz.com.

Started by a bunch of Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists (nerds) in the 90s, ITA is an innovative information technology firm with a mission to make the travel industry work better for the airlines, travel distributors and the customers.

Google pledges not get into the fray of competition with the new software, but that remains to be seen.

This acquisition and the growth of the internet travel industry business begs the question: "Will traditional travel agencies become extinct?" What do you think?

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Are travel agencies becoming extinct?

Online travel purchases for flights, hotels and tours is going to get even easier with Google’s acquisition of ITA’s flight infomation software. ITA’s software allows users to easily compare prices between airlines, various search engines such as Kayak.com and online travel agencies such as Orbitz.com.

Started by a bunch of Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists (nerds) in the 90s, ITA is an innovative information technology firm with a mission to make the travel industry work better for the airlines, travel distributors and the customers.

Google pledges not get into the fray of competition with the new software, but that remains to be seen.

This acquisition and the growth of the internet travel industry business begs the question: "Will traditional travel agencies become extinct?" What do you think?

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How many languages do you speak?

Reader Lee asks:
Since you travel to so many different places, I wondered how many languages you speak?

Reply:
One fluently, English. I slaughter Spanish, speak enough German to get into trouble and mumble some Cantonese and Mandarin. My goal is to speak conversational Spanish and German to some degree of fluency.

I've investigated getting the Rosetta Stone program for Spanish, but after the reviews decided that a better alternative for me would be Fluenz.

Rosetta Stone focuses on increasing one's vocabulary through pictures and associations while Fluenz focuses on the tutorial method. Since I have a substantial Spanish vocabulary and no grammatical understanding, I'm going with Fluenz.

Will let you know how I do...Gloria

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TravelFlash: Alaska Airlines guarantees to get you your luggage within 20 mins. or...

Alaska Airlines is upping the ante. It will get passengers' luggage to baggage claim within 20 minutes after the aircraft parks at the gate, or you get 2,000 Alaska Air miles or $20 off your next Alaska Airlines ticket starting today!

I remember once waiting an hour an a half for my luggage in Anchorage and knowing that I would get 2,000 miles in return for my frustration would have lessen my anger.

Also going the 20/20/20 route are luggage charges. Your first checked bag will now be $20 as will the second and third. The only way you lose on this deal is if you only check one bag which yesterday cost you $15. Under the new plan checking two bags remains the same cost $40. Check three and you save $30 over the old plan.

For more information click here.

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Three of my favorite travel deals websites.

I love hotwire.com for booking cars, especially at the last minute. On my recent trip to Denver, I got a standard car for $26 a day (24 hours). I drove from the airport across the city to Lakewood and back to the airport. It only cost me $5.53 in gas.

Hotwire now sends me real deals via e-mail. Daily rental in Denver for $9. If I were going back, it would be fantastic.

As for hotels, I like hotels.com. The site will pull up separate windows for other travel sites so that you can easily compare. Also there is a price match guarantee. Watch for the fine print, however so you're not comparing apples to oranges.

For an overall site (flights, hotels, cars), I like Kayak.com. It's a one stop website, but I still compare other sites as well.

Enjoy surfing for the best deal. I used Las Vegas as a comparison for this blog and got such good deals that I'm ready to leave tonight. But alas, I just got home and don't want to miss anymore of the Alaska summer than need be.

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Dehydration a common medical emergency on flights. How to avoid it.

Drink more than a half full glass of water when you fly. Drink 8 ounces for every hour you're in the air.Drink more than a half full glass of water when you fly. Drink 8 ounces for every hour you're in the air.
I've talked to a lot of flight attendants and found that a common medical emergency on flights is dehydration. People who get dehydrated experience light-headedness, drowsiness, confusion and many simply pass out.

When a passenger passes out, the flight attendants call for a doctor or medical person on board for help. They can also use a med-link service to contact medical personnel on the ground.

Dehydration can mask itself as a lot of things, heart problem, diabetic coma, etc. When someone passes out they can't relay their symptoms.

Dehydration can be prevented by drinking lots of water and avoiding alcohol and caffeine which are both dehydrating concoctions. Plus limiting your intake of salt, which is astronomical in prepared, prepackaged food, is helpful. (I just bought a cup of instant noodle soup only to realize the salt content is a whopping 64%. I'm returning it.)

A big problem for me is not being able to bring water through the security check. This is easily solved if you bring your own empty water container or dispose of your bottled water by emptying it in the trash bin before going through security and filling it at a nearby water fountain on the other side.

To learn more about dehydration and how to avoid it click here for a good article that tells you why you get dehydrated when you fly and how to avoid it.

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How to make sure you get the best hotel room for your money.

I'm really picky about hotel rooms. I honestly hate to book ahead as I like to see a place first, but that's not always possible. Therefore, I do my homework in advance.

I ran across this online article and it covers most things that I do and also gave me other ideas. Check it out at IndependentTraveler.com Not my blog, but a good website for travelers nonetheless.

Here's briefly what I do when I reserve a room:

1. Ask for the second floor if there are only two so that I don't have people above me.
2. Ask for a room in the back of the establishment and not on the busy street side. I do tell the reservationist that I want a quiet room.
3. I request a room away from an elevator or ice machine plus one not above the restaurant or bar.
4. When I get to the hotel, I always go see the room fist and believe me there have been very few times that I like the room they assign me.

As a result of this strategy, I usually get a room I'm very happy with despite a bit of frustration from time to time. For me it's worth it.

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Alaska Airlines ranks number one in customer satisfaction.

J.D. Power and Associates finds Alaska Airlines highest in customer satisfaction.J.D. Power and Associates finds Alaska Airlines highest in customer satisfaction.
Alaska Airlines flies high for the third year ranking the “highest in customer satisfaction among traditional network carriers” in J.D. Power and Associates airline satisfaction study.

With a corner on the Alaska market that’s fantastic news for the travelling public. I’d even rank the Alaska based crews as the best in the business too, but then again I’m biased.

Congratulations to Alaska Airlines and all its hardworking employees.

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Who says you can't time-travel?

I left Anchorage three weeks ago for mother duty in Nebraska on the first day of spring May 19. The swallows had returned and the trees were just budding. I returned to full blown summer. Lawns being mowed and watered. Planters and hanging baskets in full bloom. My backyard an array of greenery.

Now that's time-travel to me. Plus after spending a month in China and Hong Kong and not seeing the sun or breathing clean air shortly before I left on mother duty, I find Alaska's crisp air and clear skies a miracle.

Am I happy to be home. You betcha! I love Alaska it's the best place in the whole wide world.

Please excuse my remiss blogging over the last couple of weeks. It just wasn't that type of trip, but I'm back and anxious to get you the latest travel updates and share my travels over the past few months. Lots to show and tell.

Gloria

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Wineries in Nebraska? No lie!

Not only does Nebraska have wineries dotted throughout the State from east to west, there are 30 or more small wineries where you can taste and tour. Amazing!

I grew up in Nebraska and am back to my homeland for a family visit. When I asked my sister-in-law what I should blog about, she said how about our wineries. Indeed why not? They weren't here when I grew up.

Just outside of the little berg of St. Paul, near Grand Island where I am, on Highway 281 lies Miletta Vista Winery. The owners purchased 150 acres of pasture land in 1990 and and planted grapes. The endeavor worked.

Today, you can visit the winery and sample nine varietals. When you're finished you can buy a bottle or two to take home.

But there is no need to end your Nebraska wine tasting here. To learn more about wineries in Nebraska and where they are located, go to the Nebraska Wine and Grape Growers Association webpage by clicking here.

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My favorite flight attendant's "to do" travelers' list...

I knew I wouldn't think of everything one should do before traveling. Following is a "to do" list suggested by my favorite flight attendant, Shanaenae.

1. Check the flight status of your flight to make sure that it is departing on time. You can sign up for e-mail or text alerts if you have an Alaska Air mileage account. Updates will automatically be sent via e-mail or text message along with your gate number.

2. If you require wheelchair assistance, please call the airline in advance so the request can be added to your reservation.

3. Don't pack essential medication in your checked luggage. Carry it on.

4. Invest in TSA locks for your luggage. (Wal-Mart has the cheapest, I have found.)

5. If you would like to upgrade to first class, switch seats or sit together with another passenger, check with the gate agent for available seats before boarding. It's much easier to do this before you board the airplane.

6. Make sure you have a credit or debit card for inflight purchases, like Alaska Airlines most airlines no longer accept cash.

7. If you are diabetic or have special dietary needs, be sure you bring something along with you to eat.

8. If you are allergic to nuts or are traveling with a child that is, please inform the airline so that they can add this information to your reservation. Also, be sure to inform a flight attendant once on board.

9. Bring activities and snacks for your children to keep them occupied while on the airplane.

10. This suggestion is from me and not my favorite flight attendant, but I'm sure she would agree. Please don't let your children run up and down the aisles of the plane. It's not only dangerous for them, it really annoys other passengers. And, if you are seated with children, I beg you don't let them bang on the tray tables or kick the seats in front of them. It is incredibly rude to the passenger seated in that seat.

Thanks Shanaenae for your input. Anyone else have any suggestions? Drop me an e-mail through the "Ask the traveler box" to the right of this post or log in and post a comment below for readers to see.

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Post this traveler's "to do" list on your fridge before you leave

Several readers have e-mailed me that they are having difficulty finding my traveler's "to do" list that was posted in December. ADN's archived posts menu has a glitch and not all former posts appear when you click "full archive".

One must slog through previous pages listed at the bottom of the blog page to find the majority of past posts. Therefore I am reposting my "Traveler's to do list".

Before you go-
1. Get a vacation stop on the newspaper.

2. Order a vacation stop for trash pickup. (If gone for two weeks or more.)


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One of Hong Kong's simple pleasures...

Buildings on Hong Kong Island come alive at night.Buildings on Hong Kong Island come alive at night.

Hong Kong is an amazing place to delight in inexpensive activities, some for as little as 30 cents. For this insanely small amount, you can ride first class one-way on the Star Ferry across Hong Kong harbor from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and back again, if you wish, for the same price.

On this floating semi-tour you can see for miles on a clear day and gaze one of the most spectacular sky scrapes in the world. Take it at night and it's better than any live fireworks show as buildings twinkle to life one by one.

On the Kowloon side you can sit for hours on the shoreline promenade watching sunset and the accompanying light show on Hong Kong Island. This is one of Hong Kong's don't miss activities and it's free.

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Beijing, dancing in the streets...

Beijing residents practice their dance moves in local parks.Beijing residents practice their dance moves in local parks.

One thing I really enjoy when I travel is observing people. In Beijing, that is easy as people are everywhere doing their favorite activities in the parks and on the streets.

Every morning at sunrise people pour out of their homes for morning exercise. Tai Chi and its many forms are performed in public parks while couples dance to music melodically broadcast from loud speakers, before people begin their day.

On the weekends, things really get hopping. People gather to play cards and dominoes, local bands play music as people sing-a-long and dancers try out their newest moves including belly dancing steps.

Playing cards is a local past time. Television isn't.Playing cards is a local past time. Television isn't.

Local television is limited and is relegated to a few state run channels that begin broadcasting around noon. Cable is available to the few who can afford it. But in reality, most people would rather get out of their small apartments and socialize.

It's refreshing to see such an active society. Even people in their eighties are in shape as one octarian proved by raising her leg up resting it on top of a waist high fence and then touching her forehead to her knee. I haven't been able to do that since my teens and wouldn't give it a try now.

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Hong Kong, dense, daring, dynamic...

A view of Hong Kong Island from Kowloon.A view of Hong Kong Island from Kowloon.

Ten years ago I lived in Hong Kong and haven't been back for six years. My how things have changed.

What hasn't changed is how dynamic this city of over seven million is. Yesterday, May Day, was a public holiday, the sidewalks were clogged with people. It was stop and go in every street market I visited.

Reclaiming land for more construction along Hong Kong Island's harbor front.Reclaiming land for more construction along Hong Kong Island's harbor front.

Everywhere I look I see building cranes set to change the sky-scape with yet another glass and steel skyscraper. The city is booming economically. It's not unusual for a family to pay nearly two million for a 1,700 sq. ft. apartment. For the rich, paying $10,000 a foot isn't unusual which begs the question as to how many people got so rich here.

It's a treat to be back visiting my old haunts, if they still exist, and discovering new ones that reflect this incredibly affluent population.

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Chinese acrobats can be painful to watch...

Photo by Ingrid MaschmeyerPhoto by Ingrid Maschmeyer

On a prior visit to Beijing, I went to an incredible acrobatic show and wanted to experience one again. I went back to the old theater which had great ambiance, however since it's renovation was transformed into a cement box. Plus it is located far from any subway and is an expensive ride from Beijing's hotel district.

This show also was not as varied as the last one I saw. It had only one girl's troupe and one boy's troupe doing various gymnastic routines. At one point during the girls' performance I was overcome with sadness and could hardly watch. The girls were bearing so much weight in their contorted positions that the girl at the bottom of the heap was grimacing in obvious pain.

On the bright side, there were fun routines where the boys wore cowboy hats and danced while doing intricate gymnastic moves while juggling their hats. Two women performed an amazing feat climbing and performing on two dangling ribbons. The show was entertaining and my travel mates throughly enjoyed it. I just kept thinking about what these athletes go through to get to this point.

Young children who show potential are selected to begin training. Some as young as five according to a documentary I saw. The children are taken away from their parents and they undergo rigorous training for years whether they like it or not.

Next time (if there is one) I will do my homework and go to a different acrobatic show with more variation. I'd rather watch plate spinners than the agonizing routines some of the young women performed.

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Social networking in China not possible...

I am traveling with my daughter here in China. When we arrived at our hotel in Beijing she whipped out her i-Phone and connected with the wireless, but to her disappointment she couldn't pull up FaceBook.

FaceBook, Twitter, MySpace and all other social networks cannot be accessed from China. E-mail is fine and I have access to my Yahoo and GMail accounts.

Some sensitive subjects are also blocked such as the incident in Tianamen Square. When looking to put a hyperlink in my post about visiting the Square, I got the message: "This webpage is not available". I wasn't searching for anything other than a physical description of the Square, but I couldn't pull up anything.

While the Internet is readily available (with restrictions) in Beijing, it's not in the hinterlands. This past week, I haven't had access while visiting cities to the west, hence no posts.

My daughter, whom I might describe as a FB addict, is coping quite well and I am enjoying her company a lot more than when she is connected. So for me no FB access is a treat. (Sorry Ingrid.)

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Great Wall of China still phenomenal...

The Great Wall of China at Badaling near Beijing.The Great Wall of China at Badaling near Beijing.

We caught the fast train from Beijing to Badaling, the most visited part of China's Great Wall. About 15 mins outside of Badaling, we started to see remnants of the Wall dominating the surrounding hill tops. Amazing.

This new high-speed train gets up to around 80 mph during the one-hour ride. A new mode of transportation in recent years versus buses or private car.

The train, however, is about as far as the designers' thought as it drops passengers off over a half mile from the entrance to the wall and provides no signs or passenger route other than walking a small footpath along the busy highway. Visitors are then forced to cross both lanes of the highway without aid of a walkway. An accident waiting to happen given the speeding trucks, buses and cars.

The Wall was packed with visitors, mostly local Chinese. You can choose to go up the left or right side. We chose the path less traveled and steepest, the left. On this section, some parts are almost vertical and can't be ascended without the aid of a handrail stretching ones' calves to the limit.

We made it to highest point (2,900 feet elevation) of the Badaling section of the Great Wall, a hike up of about a mile and a half.

My calves are talking to me today, but the reminder is well worth yesterday's spectacular hike.

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