Airport In-Flight Experience

A Pilot Speaks Out: What You Don’t Know About Flying

When we contacted author, columnist, and pilot Patrick Smith to ask what he and fellow pilots could tell us about flying that we might not know, he responded with an emphatic “Where do I begin?”

Indeed, Smith has been writing columns, blogs, and books on this very topic for the past 14 years, including a New York Times bestseller called “Cockpit Confidential.” On his website,, you can browse his FAQ section to get answers to common questions about air travel.

“When people would start a question about flying [with] ‘Is it true that…’ the answer was almost always ‘No, that is completely untrue!'” Smith told us. “That was why I started writing about flying.”

Smith, a long-haul pilot for a major carrier that he prefers not to disclose, took his first flying lesson before he could drive at the age of 14 and began flying for a commercial airline in 1990. We asked him about misconceptions about flying, what it’s like to see the world from 35,000 feet, and what he has in common with the rest of us.

The Plane Flies Itself, Right? Not Really

One of Smith’s biggest pet peeves is a mistaken belief that even seasoned travelers seem hard-pressed to shake: that when a plane is on “autopilot” it is flying itself, like some gargantuan Google Car of the skies.

“I’m not sure where the idea comes from,” Smith said with a hint of exasperation. “It might be that pilots are our own worst enemies in this regard, as a lot of pilots are very enamored of the technology we use, and might say something like ‘we press these buttons and the plane flies itself.’ And in one sense that is true, but people take it very literally.”

One of the most common statements I hear is that not only do the planes fly themselves, but they also land themselves, which Smith denied emphatically, noting that nearly all of the landings he participates in are almost entirely manual.

“There is such a thing as an automatic landing, but I see maybe a couple per year,” he said. “Even with all the automation up and running, you are still always flying the plane. You are not necessarily steering with your hands on the wheel for the entire flight, but the automation only does what you tell it to do, and you have to tell it what to do, when to do it, how to do it, where to do it. The way I describe it is that there are probably six or seven different ways I can command a climb or descent using the automation, depending on the circumstances. The pilot has to determine all of that, and then execute it, make necessary changes, etc.”

Smith once flew a cargo plane across the Atlantic with the autopilot “deferred—which means it wasn’t working,” he explained. “It was simple to deal with, but there is a certain challenge to having your hands on the yoke of a plane for eight hours.”

I asked how hard this was, and whether the pilot had to wrestle with the plane the whole way, which Smith said depended on conditions. In a case like that, the plane could “fly itself” for short periods, perhaps in the way a boat can do the same if you point it in the right direction—but not for much more than that, particularly since you have to worry “not only about left and right, but up and down,” said Smith.

“Autopilot was invented to relieve pilots [from] physically [being] on the wheel, or the yoke, for the entire flight,” Smith said. “It doesn’t take the pilot out of the loop, but does make certain tasks easier.”

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Turbulence Is Normal

“When I first started writing and taking questions about flying, I was really startled by the number of people who are made anxious by rough air, because from our perspective it’s normal,” Smith said. “Not to be dismissive or too nonchalant about it, as it is true that every year a certain number of people are injured in encounters with turbulence. But typically it is because they weren’t seatbelted in when they should have been.”

So Smith is not spooked at all by what I sometimes think of as “potholes in the sky,” but when pressed to think about what does spook a pilot, he did have some concerns about how air turbulence is changing.

“It’s becoming more evident that climate change is increasing the number of encounters with unusually strong turbulence,” he noted. “It stands to reason that if certain climatic patterns are exacerbated, there are going to be a lot of things that come together to make for a bumpier atmosphere.”

Do Pilots Get Bored up There?

“Every professional in every line of work at some point becomes a bit bored, but boredom is not the right word,” Smith said. “Am I sometimes bored over the middle of the ocean at night when not a lot is going on? Sure, but I could bet you can find a surgeon who would say he gets bored in the middle of brain surgery. It’s all relative, so what I like to do in those moments is reflect back on how I got to where I am professionally. When I was a little kid reading airline timetables and imagining what it would be like to be a pilot, now to actually doing it, it keeps me grounded, to use a bad pun.”

Window or Aisle?

“Somebody with an enthusiasm or vested interest in flying is always going to take the window seat, because they enjoy having that constant reminder that you are in this remarkable machine in the air. Over the years you see so many cool things from the air, it is hard to know where to start. Flying over the Sahara Desert, seeing the icebergs in the north Atlantic, flying over the city of Istanbul, looking down at the pyramids, flying over the American West, seeing the northern lights…”

Smith’s book includes a list of the best things he has seen from the air, underlining his continued enthusiasm for seeing the planet from on high. But he also noted that pilots have a unique perspective on some of the more distressing landscapes on the planet, including disappearing rain forests, clearcutting fires and smog over major cities.

“Being able to look down for so long at so much of the planet, what I take away from it is how small the Earth really is, almost in a scary way that might serve as a warning,” Smith said. “A lot of the damage we are doing to the world is very visible from an aircraft.”

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Pilots Are Easygoing Passengers

When we see pilots take empty seats on a plane, we might wonder if they are judging everything that is going on, if they’re worried, if they’re ticked they are stuck in coach. What’s it like for a pilot flying as a passenger?

“It’s like flying as a passenger,” Smith said with a laugh. “We don’t really do any backseat piloting; we’re so familiar with the training that goes into being a pilot that it is hard to get nervous.”

But it’s not all good times: “The things that annoy me about flying are the same things that annoy the average passenger.”

Pilots Are Almost as Unimpressed by Airport Security as You Are

Which brings us to airport security: “The system we have come up with is in some ways so irrational that it makes me question our collective sanity,” Smith said. “Some of it is good and works well, but enough of it is so irrational and unreasonable that it is distressing.

“The parts that work are the parts that we don’t see; the stuff that goes on offstage, so to speak. That really is the nuts and bolts of airport security. What we have on the concourse is another story. I’m not saying that onsite airport security is a bad idea; of course it’s not. But the specifics of what we have come up with are head-scratching. And that would be excusable if they didn’t waste such immense amounts of time and money. Security has now become the single most tedious and aggravating part of flying, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

For pilots, “There is a certain rolling of the eyes and grumbling, but in the end we acquiesce. I think there should be more pushback against rules that are obviously a waste of time and money; why airline employees and airlines haven’t come together to ask for change, I don’t know.”

Smith writes at length about the state of airport security here in Terminal Madness: What Is Airport Security?; it’s well worth a read.

You Can Glide a Plane Home

In the aftermath of the famous successful water landing of US Airways Flight 1549, which lost both engines after colliding with a flock of geese and ended up in the Hudson River with no serious injuries, many people wondered if you could do that with any plane under any circumstances.

“Even the biggest plane glides perfectly well,” Smith explained. “In fact, the glide ratio—the altitude lost to the distance covered—is actually better in some bigger airplanes than in very small airplanes.

“But most people don’t realize that as a passenger, you glide all the time,” he said. “Descents are often made at what we call ‘idle thrust,’ which means that the engines are still running, but they are producing no forward power or thrust. They are powering the electricity and the air and everything, but they are doing nothing otherwise; you are gliding. If the engines were shut off completely at that point, it would be dark, and none of the internal systems would be powered, but the plane wouldn’t be gliding any differently.

“And that happens on pretty much every flight; there is always some point where you are at idle thrust.”

So instead of saying have a nice flight, perhaps we should say have a nice glide.

What to Buy Before You Fly

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Health & Wellness Outdoors

Local Secrets of Surviving Polar Night

Polar night—it basically means living in near-constant darkness during the winter. In places like Uummannaq, Greenland, there are just two to three hours of light per day (and it’s more a post-dusk light than full on sunshine). Fairbanks, Alaska has less than four hours of daylight on the shortest day of the year. How do the inhabitants of these frozen places deal with such short, cold days? I asked them.

How Residents Cope

As someone who dreads winter, I was surprised to hear that it’s common for Greenlanders to embrace the dark days of the season. Karl Ole Petersen, of Greenland-based Uummannaq Fjord Tours, makes the long nights sound sweet: “We cope with the dark by being more together with the family and friends and have more activities together like playing Greenlandic games and a lot of music and dance. In short, the dark times bring us closer. It gives us more opportunity to entertain each other (for example telling funny and scary stories)”.

This sounds like a much better way of coping with winter than binge-watching Netflix and eating carbs.

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The Effect on Mood

As anyone who’s experienced the winter doldrums can attest to, the lack of sunlight can have a real effect on the psyche. Martin Sørensen, also with Uummannaq Fjord Tours explains, “The dark period affects all our sleeping habits, we sleep more and it affects our mood that is why we need to be closer to each other and support each other, hence families spend more time together … Some people get depression, out of it and this period is very hard for them, but in this modern world they use light therapy lamps. The dark time give also more time to go in yourself, see what is wrong and right. I like the darkness and respect it, for me it means relaxation time and cozy evenings with candles in windows.”

Scientific studies have shown that using light therapy boxes can help with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and may be worth a try if you’re feeling down due to the dark days. (There are even travel-sized ones available if you’re vacationing somewhere with polar night.)

On the bright side, if you struggle with sleeping due to sunlight in the summer, dark mornings can be like a natural blackout curtain. According to Jerry Evans of Explore Fairbanks, “Sleeping is never a problem in the dark of winter. Although it can be a little more difficult in the morning to get out of your warm bed when it’s still dark and cold. Some people slip in a quick trip to the tropics or turn on full spectrum lights to get a dose of mood elevating sunshine, but in general Fairbanksans are renowned for their friendly can-do demeanor no matter the season.”

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What do People Do?

Instead of huddling inside all winter, people who live in polar night places make the most of it. In Greenland, “We go tours and watch the northern light dancing over us. [We go] dogsledding on the roads until the fiord is frozen down,” says Sørensen. Evans agrees: “Visitors often choose Fairbanks for a winter travel vacation in Alaska because of its darkness. That darkness is actually an advantage for another activity: viewing the northern lights. During the shortened daylight hours, there is ample opportunities to get outside for various activities. Once it turns darker, visitors can stay inside to explore the vibrant art, culture and food scene.”

“There is no temperature too cold for Fairbanks residents not to put on their cold weather gear and get out and enjoy the great outdoors. Snowmobiling, aurora chasing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, ice-fishing, hiking, bonfires, you name it, we do it.”

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Caroline Morse Teel lives in Boston, and hates that it gets dark so early in the winter. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for polar night and other travel photos and around the world. 

Family Travel

Q&A: A Family Travel Adventure in Latin America

Mike DeSa is a travel journalist, husband, father to three rambunctious boys and former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. After nearly seven years of service and a combat deployment to Afghanistan, Mike and his family decided it was time to walk a different path. They left everything behind and are currently in the midst of a seven-country, seven-month trip across South and Central America. To keep up with his family’s travel around the Southern Hemisphere, you can follow them at #dclandromomania on Instagram and

Mike recently took time to answer a few questions about his trip for us from his current stopover in Cuenca, Ecuador. What were the most essential things you packed for this trip?

Mike DeSa: The two items we’ve used the most are our waterproof, shockproof and compact-sized camera and our ruggedized laptop. As writers and people who love photography, we knew we needed to invest in a computer and camera that would endure the abuse of this trip. We also needed clothes for warm, humid weather as well as cold and possibly snowy climates. This necessitated several vented fishing shirts as well as zip-off pants that could easily be converted to shorts. Jackets with a waterproof outer shell and a zip-in fleece liner have been perfect for all the cooler climes we’ve encountered to date. Katie and I each have camping-style backpacks that allow our hands to remain free to hold onto the kids through busy bus terminals or airports. For a more detailed list on what we brought, read our Huffington Post blog post.

IT: What’s been the biggest challenge so far?

MD: We assumed the biggest challenges would be mental, such as coping with homesickness. A month in, the biggest challenges have actually been physical, such as traveling on a budget — more specifically, the constraints of that budget to buy the food we crave and the unavailability of some ingredients. When we wanted a certain dish back home, we usually went to the local supermarket and picked up the ingredients, or ate out. Here we’ve found that we can’t always find any ingredient we want, especially in smaller towns, so it’s made whipping up a favorite dish like lasagna or chocolate chip cookies very difficult.

It must sound irrational that our biggest challenge so far during a seven-month, seven-country trek around the Southern Hemisphere with three kids is not having chocolate chip cookies on demand, but our love of food is a big part of our joy as a family.

IT: What has been your favorite moment with the boys so far?

MD: Hands down our trip up the Napo River into the Amazon. We started with a long motorcanoe ride upriver; the low profile of the boat offered a unique perspective like that of gliding on top of the water and was perfect for spotting several different types of Amazonian birds along the way. When we arrived, our guide Gary (a native Ecuadorian) led us on a short walk through the jungle to meet a local woman, Martha, who provided us a demonstration on harvesting and cooking yuca as well as making some of the world’s finest chocolate.

Our favorite part of the tour was the making of chocolate from scratch. Gary cut a cacao pod right off the tree, and while he explained the history of the plant and the origins of its famous delicacy, we all chewed and sucked on the seeds, which tasted just like cotton candy. We then helped toast and peel the beans, and the boys got to drop them into the grinder. The product was fresh, 100 percent unsweetened chocolate! The look of joy and anticipation on the boys’ faces as they watched the paste slowly squeeze from the grinder was one we’ll always remember.

Martha then added a little fresh cane sugar and water, and the most gorgeous smell rose from the pan as we watched our favorite treat boil together before our eyes. Fresh bananas and strawberries accompanied the chocolate, and we all spent the next 30 minutes dipping, spreading and smearing chocolate everywhere. We highly recommend taking this trip with Michelle and Gary at La CasaBlanca if you’re ever in Tena.

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IT: What’s the best way to fund this sort of long-term travel?

MD: My wife and I saved as much as we could throughout my seven years in the Marine Corps, enough to fund this trip and search for a family investment. The best financial advice we can offer to a family looking at something like this is to start early, constantly evaluate what you’re spending money on and live within your means. Before we left, we did a great deal of research on the cost of living in different countries in South America and built a strict budget. We’ve made some minor tweaks to it since we’ve been here, but for the most part it’s been fairly accurate.

Once we hit a limit on meals out for the week or souvenirs for the month, that’s it — no more spending. Since our trip spans so many countries with varying costs of living, we had to find ways to save in preparation for the more expensive countries, such as living at a WWOOF operation or staying in a hostel. It may not always be the most comfortable living, but the experience of the trip makes the sacrifices well worth it.

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IT: What can people who don’t travel with children learn from your trip?

MD: Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something you love with the people you love. Children or not, create an adventure around something you’re passionate about. It could be a hunt for the best fish and chips in England, a treasured temples of the world quest or rescuing sea turtles in Honduras. We built our trip around a search for investment opportunities and tourism as well as our love of food. We brought our children because they mean everything to us and we wanted to teach them about the world they live in. Whatever your ideal adventure is, do it with the people you love, build it around your passion and remember that you’re never too old to learn new things.

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Pet Travel

Traveling with Dogs: Q&A with the Founder of BringFido

Have you ever considered bringing your dog with you on vacation — even when traveling overseas? Melissa Halliburton founded the website BringFido to make it easier for people to do just that. The site is a directory of pet-friendly hotels, vacation rentals, B&Bs and campgrounds all over the world; it also includes information on restaurants and attractions. We caught up with Halliburton to ask about her practical tips for traveling with dogs as well as find out where she and her own pet, Roxy, are headed next.

Independent Traveler: Other than companionship, what are the benefits of bringing your pet with you when you travel?

Melissa Haliburton: Traveling with your furry friend can be good for your health and possibly your pet’s health too. You and your four-legged companion will both get great exercise exploring new destinations on foot. And bringing Fido along on your adventure will eliminate any concerns about separation anxiety. Traveling with a dog may also help you make new friends in an unfamiliar destination. Take your pooch to a neighborhood park and mingle with local pet owners. Mentioning Fido’s travel adventures is always a great conversation starter. Finally, bringing your pet along on your journey may save you some money. Many hotels and vacation rentals welcome pets for no extra fee, saving you big bucks over expensive boarding options.

IT: There are plenty of horror stories about bringing pets on flights, particularly in the cargo hold (for animals too large to bring in the cabin). How can you decide whether it’s safe to fly with your pet?

MH: Before finalizing any travel plans, be sure to ask your veterinarian whether your pet is healthy enough to travel. Go over the full itinerary in the vet’s office and ask for his/her advice. Even if your pet is perfectly healthy, that doesn’t mean that she is safe to fly.

Reduce the risk of incidents by following a few basic tips: First, you should book nonstop flights whenever possible. Avoid destinations or connecting cities that may expose your pet to extreme temperatures while in cargo, on the tarmac or in the custody of the airlines. Second, anticipate delays and have a backup plan in case your original itinerary is impacted. Third, for your pet’s safety and your own peace of mind, invest in a pet tracker to monitor Fido’s whereabouts throughout your trip. Finally, don’t medicate your pet with tranquilizers, as these medicines can cause heart and respiratory issues. Instead, focus on making sure that Fido is comfortably fitted with an approved crate that is large enough for him to turn around and lie down inside.

IT: Which is a better bet for people traveling with a dog — a vacation rental or a hotel?

MH: Deciding between a vacation rental or hotel is generally a matter of personal choice, as both have pros and cons. But pet owners may want to consider their pet’s individual needs and personality when making their lodging decision. For the pampered pooch, an upscale hotel may be just the ticket. Some hotels offer amazing pet amenities like doggie dining menus and pet spa services. If your pooch prefers some off-leash time, a vacation home with a fenced backyard would make his holiday special. Regardless of the type of accommodation, always consider the location around the hotel or rental, as you’ll likely be going on late night or early morning walks with your pup.

IT: What advice would you offer people who want to bring their pet on an international vacation?

MH: Plan ahead. Depending on the destination, you will need to begin preparation weeks, if not months, prior to an international trip. Never book an international flight until you have double-checked that you pet can be safely accommodated and that your pet can satisfy all entry and exit requirements for pet transit.

IT: Which places are easiest for Americans to travel with a pet, and which are the most expensive and/or challenging?

MH: Traveling internationally with a pet is never as simple as paying a fee and setting off on your journey. No matter the destination, you’ll be completing paperwork, scheduling vet appointments and paying hefty sums to get your pet to your intended destination. But pet owners should be particularly cautious when it comes to travel in countries with strict quarantine requirements, such as Australia. Even domestic travel to Hawaii involves quarantine restrictions for your furry friend.

IT: What’s your favorite travel experience that you’ve had with your dog?

MH: We recently visited the town of Canals, Spain (near Valencia) with our Chihuahua-pug mix, Roxy, to participate in festivities celebrating Saint’s Day for San Antonio Abad. Each year in mid-January, locals and visitors gather for a three-day festival involving parades, a bonfire celebration and the Blessing of the Animals ceremony.

IT: Where are you and your dog headed next?

MH: We don’t have another international trip planned at the moment, but we’re likely to visit one or two Asian capitals sometime in the next year.

Want to learn more? Check out Halliburton’s book, “Ruff Guide to the United States,” which includes a directory of dog-friendly attractions and hotels across all 50 states. And don’t miss our guide to traveling with pets.

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Why Bill Bryson Won’t Answer Your Texts

Travel writer Bill Bryson has made a career out of examining the follies and foibles of different countries and regions, including Australia, the Appalachian Trail, his home state of Iowa and his adopted country of Britain. Few authors have as much insight into how tourists behave as he does.

Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor at our sister site Cruise Critic, caught up with Bryson last month on a cruise aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. Bryson discussed his travel pet peeves — including the phrase “bucket list” — and how you can get the most out of a trip to even the most well-documented cities.

IT: After a fairly normal 1950s childhood in the Midwest, did you ever expect that you’d spend much of your life traveling?

Bill Bryson: Not at all. But I grew up with a really powerful urge to see the world, and the thing I remember very clearly is looking at National Geographic when I was a kid. My dad always had a subscription.

Now, the classic thing for little boys to do is look at the bare-breasted ladies in Africa or Tahiti, but what I was looking at was France and Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Everywhere in the world looked so attractive and exotic. I just wanted to go off and see the world.

IT: Are certain places still on your bucket list?

BB: I don’t like using that term “bucket list” as I get closer and closer to being in bucket territory. But no, there are a lot of places that I’ve never been where I’d like to go, and there are a lot of places that I’ve never been with my wife where I’d like to take her, and then there are a lot of places that I would like to go and possibly write about. But they aren’t all the same places.

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IT: What is your biggest pet peeve when you look at other travelers?

BB: There are so many people who are so obsessed with their job and their career that — no matter where you send them — they seem unable to enjoy the experience of travel. I think that’s a great shame, not only because travel makes you a better person but because it also makes you better at whatever business you do.

I know a man whose business took him all over the world but especially Sydney. And every time he’d go to Sydney from America, he’d stay at an airport hotel and meet his Australian colleagues at the airport hotel, and as soon as he possibly could he’d fly out again. He’d never seen Sydney Harbour! I don’t care how ambitious I was or how tied to my job I was, if you sent me to Sydney, at the minimum, I’m going to have a day to enjoy the experience.

IT: How do you think the Internet and smartphones have changed the way that we travel?

BB: People are so busy reporting their experiences that they aren’t actually having the experiences. I don’t travel with a cell phone in America because my cell phone from England doesn’t work in America. It drives my publishers crazy that they can’t phone me! I tell them, pretend it’s 1995 again and you don’t have a cell phone. They want instant access. So many people email you and expect an answer within minutes. You don’t have that entitlement to expect me to respond immediately.

IT: What else have you noticed about how travel has changed?

BB: There is so much more of it happening now. Just a year or so ago, I went to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. It was out of season, but [the bridge] was so full of human beings you couldn’t walk across it. It was physically impossible without fighting crowds. It’s a shame that there are so many people who are trying to have the same few experiences.

IT: So how can a traveler who wants to have a unique experience do so?

A: Well, if you just go another 200 yards, you can have it all to yourself. [My wife and I] walk away from Trafalgar Square or Place d’Concorde. We usually end up going to some residential area or some park or follow the river. Then you very quickly shed all the tourists.

If you want to experience Paris or Rome or London in an authentic way, it’s still really easy to do. Go where people live, not where the tourists hang out. Walking is the way to get a full three-dimensional experience where all your senses kick in. You’ve got the smells and the sights and the wind in your face.

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— interview conducted by Chris Gray Faust

Experiential Travel

Costa Rica’s Hidden Treasures: A Q&A with Maricruz Pereira

Imagine Costa Rica, and you probably picture lush rain forests, smoking volcanos and exotic birds flitting through the trees. But while this image isn’t inaccurate, a local expert named Maricruz Pereira knows that there’s much more to this friendly Central American country.

Pereira is the general manager and co-owner of Unique Adventures, which specializes in customized experiences and tailor-made itineraries for visitors to Costa Rica. The company can arrange activities such as bird watching, kayaking, visiting a coffee plantation or learning to make tortillas.

We asked Pereira to reveal her favorite less-discovered spots in Costa Rica, offer advice for first-time visitors and more. Most people considering a trip to Costa Rica probably picture wildlife and natural beauty, but what interesting cultural experiences can travelers have there?

Maricruz Pereira: Even though Costa Rica is mostly known for its beautiful nature, I think our best asset is our people. Tourists will find that Costa Ricans are very proud of our country and love to share it with our visitors. The best cultural experience would be to hang out with the locals whenever possible. You can do this by going on a pub/beer crawl in San Jose, going to the local fiestas in any village, stopping in a farmers’ market and even joining a mejenga (impromptu soccer game) in the local plaza! Talk to the locals; ask questions; don’t be afraid to approach them. You will go back home with a nice tan and a bunch of new friends!

IT: What are your favorite places in Costa Rica, and why?

MP: There are so many places to love in Costa Rica! I enjoy the majesty of our several active volcanoes. Some of them, like the Poas and the Irazu, are safe and relatively easy to explore; you can walk right up to the rim of the crater and gaze inside. The beaches in the south Caribbean are wild and beautiful, with the lush forest coming all the way down to the beach, and the laid-back, colorful Caribbean culture that makes you slow down and enjoy the moment. They are perfect for relaxing and getting away from the crowds.

Of course, Corcovado National Park, which is my favorite rain forest, is so remote and secluded; it is a real adventure just getting there. And then you find yourself immersed in the rain forest, with the ocean at your feet, and the howler monkeys and scarlet macaws “singing” just a few meters away.

IT: What advice would you give first-time visitors before they come to Costa Rica?

MP: Different latitude, different attitude. Don’t plan on being locked up in an all-inclusive for several days in a row. As much as I like our beaches, Costa Rica has a different vibe to it. It’s not all about sun and sea (although that’s a nice part too), but about traveling around, going on our roads, seeing the sights, exploring. And if you are renting a car, ask for a GPS!

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IT: Which part of Costa Rica is most overlooked, and why should travelers check it out?

MP: The area of Rio Celeste in the northern area is a jewel that is yet to be discovered. Inside Tenorio Volcano National Park there is this magnificent river and waterfall that are bright blue (hence the name Rio Celeste). It’s a moderately difficult hike within the forest with quite a few steep steps to get there, but the view and the energy of the area are worth it!

IT: What’s one food every traveler should try in Costa Rica?

MP: Chifrijo! It’s a delicious concoction of rice, beans, avocado, pico de gallo and small pieces of fried pork, served with toasted tortillas in a medium-sized bowl. Don’t be fooled by the small size. It’s a full meal!

IT: Outside of Costa Rica, what are your favorite travel destinations?

MP: I enjoy England very much. I have always loved everything related to its history and tradition. I especially like visiting the old, magical places like Stonehenge, Glastonbury, Avebury… I find all the tales and stories around these sites fascinating, and the scenery is just breathtaking!

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Sustainable Travel

Social Impact Travel: A Q&A with Michal Alter

Michal Alter has spent her career working on behalf of underserved communities. So when the Israel native and New York resident decided to launch a tourism operation two years ago, the needs of others were at the forefront of her mind.

The company Alter cofounded,, allows travelers to find and book authentic and impactful excursions in the U.S. and overseas. carefully vets the organizations it works with to ensure that the activities make a social impact and that 100 percent of the fees a traveler pays for an activity is invested in the local community.

From her office in New York, Alter talked with us about this rapidly growing platform for what she called “social impact travel experiences.”

Independent Traveler: Why did you start this company?

Michal Alter: We launched in 2015 in response to the travel industry’s immense potential to generate economic sustainability for local communities. The $7 trillion travel industry is the world’s top economic driver, yet only 5 percent of earnings are left in local hands. With this in mind, we created a platform that enables social ventures like nonprofits and other community-based enterprises to create and market mainstream tourism products that will finance their missions.

IT: How many different activities could a traveler book through

MA: As of March 2017, we have 545 exclusive experiences in 65 countries. We aim to reach more than 1,000 do-good partners by the end of the year.

IT: Why is it important for travelers to support local communities?

MA: When we do not support local communities, local cultures and natural resources get diluted. What makes the destination so unique and different from our own home towns then disappears. When travelers support local communities, they are leaving funds directly in the hands of the local hosts whose communities’ natural resources, labor, social fabrics and cultures are affected.

IT: What are some of the more unusual experiences someone could arrange through

MA: Some of my favorite experiences are in always inspiring Paris. The most unusual offers guests the chance to upcycle trash into artwork. Visitors repurpose waste into something beautiful as well as learn about the importance of responsible waste management.

In Cuzco, Peru, you can go to a potato park with a group that works to preserve local ancestral agricultural knowledge and celebrate the country’s unique potato heritage. There are 1,500 native types of potatoes grown in Peru!

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IT: Can you tell me a little about the vetting process you go through before selecting the organizations you partner with?

MA: We focus on partnerships with locally operated grassroots organizations as they are the best equipped to serve their communities; they have vast knowledge and understanding of the issues. Our high-level vetting criteria includes confirming a measurable track record of significant impact on the local community and a commitment that 100 percent of hosts’ revenue from the experience will be invested into the local community. We then conduct extensive online research about potential organizations and use existing official databases of highly vetted nonprofits around the globe to identify new partners.

Once we’ve identified a new potential partner organization, we send someone from our global network of more than 200 “travel ambassadors” to visit the organizations in person. After the meeting, the ambassador fills out a detailed report.

IT: Your activities are not very expensive. Do people have a misperception that social impactful travel equals more expensive travel?

MA: There is definitely that misconception. It comes from the fact that a lot of what is marketed to consumers as “social impactful travel” is either an expensive and long-term volunteer tourism commitment, or a high-end, highly curated culturally immersive itinerary. This is where’s innovation lies, as we make impactful travel experiences both affordable and easy to book.

IT: If a traveler is told that an excursion or activity will support the local community, what can he or she do to confirm that’s indeed the case?

MA: Travelers can check a provider’s website to see what type of company it is, review the mission statement, research what the vendor is incentivized by and see how revenue will be spent. Also, check customer reviews to see if past guests had meaningful experiences and look to see if the company has responsible travel certifications from such organizations as the Center for Responsible Travel, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and the International Ecotourism Society.

IT: What have been some of your most memorable culturally immersive experiences from your travels?

MA: I recently visited Al Hagal, an Israeli social enterprise that leads yearlong youth empowerment programs through surfing to underserved youth from around the country. I took my first wave-surfing lesson. Surfing the waves for the first time was a lot of fun, but much more powerful was getting to know the staff and youth, taking in the contagious passion with which the staff speaks about their youth program, and listening to stories of transformation from the program’s participants.

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59 National Parks in 52 Weeks: One Couple’s Journey

Stefanie Payne and Jonathan Irish quit their jobs, rented out their condo, found temporary digs for their cats and will head out next week on an adventure years in the making.

Starting on New Year’s Day, the two Washington D.C. residents will spend a year visiting every national park in the United States. They selected 2016 for their trip partially because it’s the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

As Payne, a 36-year-old writer, and Irish, 41, a photographer, finished packing up their home, we caught up with the couple to hear more about the journey ahead.

Independent Why did you decide to do this road trip?

Jonathan Irish: Stefanie and I both grew up loving the great outdoors, and especially the beautiful nature in our U.S. national parks. The special celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service, along with our love of nature, inspired us to commit to spending the entire year adventuring and photographing in every one of the 59 parks. We can’t think of a better way to spend a year.

IT: Was it scary to quit your jobs?

JI: While we appreciate the stability that a regular job provides, every once in a while it is good to shake things up, to see life in a different way. As hard as it was to leave jobs at organizations we love [Payne worked at NASA and Irish at the National Geographic Society], we both felt the pull to do our own project.

IT: Where do you go first?

Stefanie Payne: We’ll start in the southeastern United States, where there are five parks — three in Florida, one in the U.S. Virgin Islands and one in South Carolina. We are going to reveal our route as we go, to keep an element of surprise.

IT: How will you be traveling?

JI: We will be traveling in an SUV towing an Airstream travel trailer. We chose the Airstream for two reasons. First, there’s a certain nostalgia we associate with Airstream trailers that is similar to the nostalgia we feel for the national parks. It felt like the right way to do it! From a more practical standpoint, we needed to have a home office on the road. The Airstream provided us with that ability to have a consistent place to work and rest.

We are calling this a road trip, and we will drive to every park where we can in fact take the car and Airstream. But there are some parks on islands — American Samoa, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands — where we will have to fly and rent a vehicle.

IT: Which parks are you most looking forward to seeing?

SP: I am so excited for Katmai in Alaska! Growing up in Washington state, the annual salmon run is a big part of the culture in terms of Native American history and the ecology of the region. To see its end with grizzlies catching them in the river, and to get that iconic shot, will be for me a strong personal connection.

JI: I too am excited for Alaska, and in particular some of the remote parks that a lot of visitors don’t get to, like Gates of the Arctic. I love photographing the Southwest, so am very excited for more time there. The bigger parks, like Yosemite and Yellowstone, are always amazing and so to spend some good time in them is a dream. And I am excited for the unknown, the unexpected experiences that we can’t foresee that blow us away.

SP: I also think there will be a lot of beauty found in parks that I didn’t know existed until we started researching this project.

JI: I think the road trip in itself — the trials and tribulations of living in small quarters and driving throughout the entire U.S. — will be really fun and interesting too.

IT: What kinds of activities do you plan to do in the parks?

SP: Jon and I love to hike and kayak, so there will be a lot of that year-round. And we got some new stand-up paddleboards, which neither of us have ever tried and can’t wait to learn.

JI: We’ve chosen to see and experience the Grand Canyon via rafting, which has always been on our to-do list. We will kayak and camp in the Everglades, hike in just about every park and of course, take lots of photos.

IT: What has been the most difficult part of the planning?

JI: For me, it’s been the million little details that we must be on top of. We’ve been in D.C. for seven or eight years now, and in that time we’ve become quite entrenched in so many ways. I don’t think one can fully understand or see how entrenched they are until they try to pick up and leave. From finding a temporary home for our cats, to renting the condo, cutting the cable bill, packing up, getting new health insurance and a million other details, it’s incredibly hard to make a major move like this.

SP: Planning for this project has been a balancing act like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It’s an enormous amount of change to endure during a short period of time.

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IT: What’s on your must-pack list, and what are some of the creature comforts of home you won’t be able to bring along?

SP: Must pack: Outdoor gear, awesome hiking boots, books, camera gear. We’ll bring maps and obviously use iPhone maps and apps.

JI: I am packing my camera gear very carefully, as I want to be prepared for everything. We are also making sure we have the camping and backpacking gear we need in order to dig as deep into the parks as we want to. Besides a great coffee maker, I can do without most other things!

SP: We can’t imagine not having our cats with us all the time, but it’s just not that kind of trip.

IT: Can we check in with you in a few months and see how the trip is going?

SP: So much is going to happen all the time and we are so excited to share our story this year. The story will unfold on our website and Facebook page.

Editor’s Note: Read the follow-up to this post: Catching Up with the Couple Visiting Every U.S. National Park.

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Experiential Travel

Finding VIP Travel Experiences: A Q&A with Wendy Perrin

Wendy Perrin is one of the world’s leading travel experts, known to many readers as a longtime columnist and consumer news director for Conde Nast Traveler. These days she serves as the Travel Advocate for our parent company, TripAdvisor, and maintains her own travel site at We sat down with Wendy to ask her about some of the key lessons she’s learned over her decades of working in travel — and to find out which destinations are still on her bucket list. What’s the most common mistake you see travelers make when planning a trip?

Wendy Perrin: Failing to take into account the lay of the land, distances between places and other local logistics. They end up wasting a lot of time at their destination, and missing important experiences and hidden gems, because of inefficiency, timing mistakes, waits and lines they could have bypassed, hassles they could have avoided. I don’t see any booking engine or app solving this problem. And it’s the reason why I created my WOW List. Travelers can experience twice as much in half the time if they book their trip through one of my WOW List travel fixers. They know the ins and outs of their destination and get you the access and perks you didn’t realize you’d need. Once you’ve planned a trip with one — and have experienced how they get you to the right place at the right time on the right day of the week, introduce you to people you could never meet on your own and make the lines disappear — you never want to take another trip without one.

IT: Can you share one or two of the most memorable experiences such experts have arranged for your own trips?

WP: I could share a hundred. But one such experience was when I got inside the secret Renaissance passageway in Florence, Italy, that runs from the Uffizi Gallery across the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace. It’s called the Vasari Corridor, and it was built by the Medicis so they could walk between their workplace and residence invisibly, spying on their subjects from on high. The passageway houses the world’s largest collection of self-portraits by artists, and also provides some of Florence’s best views, but that’s not even what makes it so cool. The thrill is how it makes Florence’s history and secrecy come to life in such a visceral way. As the passageway winds this way and that, growing narrower and darker and more rough-hewn, it feels like you’re walking back in time. Alone in the tunnel with your guide, peering down into the shops on the bridge, into hotel rooms on the river, even into the church balcony that the Medicis used, you feel the power that the Medicis must have felt. Seeing without being seen, you get to be a spy like them.

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Another memorable experience happened in southeastern Turkey, where one of my Trusted Travel Experts arranged access to Rumkale (Turkish for “Roman castle”), an ancient fortress that sits on an outcrop some 500 feet above the Euphrates. The fortress has not been restored: There are no paths or railings or tickets, much less guards or postcard vendors. There’s simply nobody there. You have a Roman ruin all to yourself (including the 230-foot-deep well where, local legend has it, Narcissus saw his reflection in the water, fell in love with it, reached in to grab it and fell down the well to his death). The view from Rumkale is spectacular in every direction: The fortress is surrounded almost entirely by water, and across the river, carved into the cliffs, are hundreds of caves. Someday some hotel entrepreneur is going to turn those caves into glass-walled river-view suites. And that was the thrill: Seeing an ancient site before it gets developed. I’ve clambered around my share of Roman ruins — including gems like Baalbek in Lebanon and Palmyra in Syria — but Rumkale is the ultimate.

IT: What’s one travel lesson that’s taken you a long time to learn?

WP: Take off your watch.

IT: Can you share your funniest travel moment?

WP: Well, it wasn’t funny at the time, but it was the transcontinental flight when both children threw up on my husband, one after the other. That lovely episode yielded one of my carry-on-luggage tips for parents: Don’t just pack a change of clothing for your kid — pack one for yourself too.

IT: After decades of traveling, which destinations or experiences are still on your bucket list?

WP: Well, my bucket list starts with any place I haven’t been. That includes Oman, Uzbekistan, French Polynesia, Nova Scotia, Mount Rushmore and a slew of islands worldwide, from Gozo to Vanuatu to Zanzibar. And then my bucket list continues with every place I’ve already been to but not with my kids … yet. They would love New Zealand, the Galapagos Islands, Jordan, Newfoundland, Zion National Park…. Funny thing about my bucket list: The more of it I do, the longer it gets. The more places I go, the more I realize there is to experience there, and the more I want to go back and do what I missed the first time, or do it with certain people who weren’t there the first time.

IT: If you could only use one app on your next trip, which would you choose?

WP: I use TripAdvisor a lot on business trips, but when my goal is to immerse myself in a foreign culture, my preference is to use no apps at all and instead get the info by asking the locals.

IT: What advice would you give travelers who may not have a luxury budget but want to upgrade their trip in meaningful ways?

WP: Choose a destination where the exchange rate works in your favor. Go in shoulder season (that window of time between high and low seasons, when rates have dropped yet conditions are good for the activities you have in mind). Get a credit card that makes flying more tolerable by giving you lounge access, free luggage, express security lanes, priority boarding, extra legroom, whatever you can get. Grab breakfast outside the hotel at a bakery or coffee shop where the locals hang (unless breakfast is included in the room rate). Have picnics in pretty locales with provisions you buy at colorful local markets. And climb steps: Often there are two ways to get to the top of a site (whether it’s an ancient fortress, a church cupola with a view or the Eiffel Tower), and often you have a choice between an elevator and the stairs. Usually the elevator costs more, has a line and is not as atmospheric as the steps. Plus you get exercise — which means you needn’t splurge on a hotel with a gym.

Check out more travel interviews!

Editor’s Note: is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.

Experiential Travel

Living Like a Local in Seoul, South Korea

Gabriela Castelan has been teaching English in an elementary school in Seoul, South Korea for almost two years. She’s originally from New Jersey, U.S.A. You can follow her blog at

Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live?

A: Imagine a company picnic in which you have to go hiking up a mountain for at least two hours with a giant backpack, food, drinks and gear — well, that scenario is actually not that uncommon in Korea. Many tourists probably don’t know how popular hiking is as a hobby for many Koreans. Hiking is not a joke here; Koreans are very serious about it. Many people spend their weekends going to different hiking areas, parks and mountains.

Q: What’s the worst culture shock you experienced as you settled into your new home?

A: The worst culture shock was seeing how many people constantly push, shove and don’t form lines when it comes to getting on a train or bus. I had read about how forming lines isn’t really “a thing” here, but it was shocking to experience first-hand when I was terrified of using transportation to go anywhere! I barely notice it now, but it was amplified when I first arrived.

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Q: Do you find that living in a foreign country makes you a better traveler when you visit other places? If so, how?

A: Living in a foreign country has definitely made me a better traveler. Leaving the U.S. and coming to live on the other side of the world was a little scary, to say the least, but I feel it has given me a sense of adventure and the courage to visit other countries. You can’t be a good traveler without having that desire to travel, which is exactly what I feel living in Korea has given me. Even within Korea, there are places I have yet to see but definitely want to. Always wanting to know and see more is a key ingredient to becoming a better traveler.

Q: Which tourist attraction in Seoul is most overrated, and where should travelers go instead?

A: Going up to see Namsan Tower in Seoul feels a bit overrated. The view is gorgeous, and it’s interesting to see the many locks placed on the tower to signify either eternal love or friendship, but it’s crowded with people and there’s barely any room to take a nice picture without someone walking into your shot.

If you have some time to spend in Seoul, I would recommend going to Bukhansan National Park and climbing up Bukhansan Mountain. Note that it’s a bit of a strenuous climb though. A few friends and I made the mistake of thinking the hike would be similar to a nature walk. It wasn’t, and most of us stopped halfway through the hike, but one friend did make it to the top. He told us the view was spectacular, and you could really see how gorgeous Seoul looked. So if you’re fit and you really want a view of the city, Bukhansan is the place to go to.

Q: No one should visit South Korea without tasting ________.

A: Dolsot bibimbap. This amazing food is a mixture of vegetables, rice, beef and a fried egg. It’s all individually cooked and then put together in a hot stone pot called a dolsot. The rice is put at the bottom so the heat from the dolsot can give it a nice crunch. When it is served, it is up to you to finish the job by mixing all of the delicious ingredients together with your chopsticks or spoon and then digging in.

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Q: What’s the toughest thing about being an expat? The most rewarding?

A: I think the toughest part of being an expat is figuring out how not to feel lonely during the family-oriented holidays. South Korea has its own version of Thanksgiving that lasts for about three days. It’s pretty rough on expats because almost everything is closed; Koreans spend that time with their families. It can feel pretty lonely when you can’t spend time with your own family on holidays because they are so far away.

One of the most rewarding things of being an expat is recognizing the great things about this country. Seeing a way of life that is so different from my own is always a fascinating experience. Korea has an interesting culture; convenient, cheap and clean subways; safe neighborhoods and delicious food. Even after I leave South Korea, I know I will miss what I have experienced here.

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The Kindness of Strangers: Q&A with a Couchsurfing Host

Would you welcome a traveler you’ve never met to come sleep on your couch for free? If you would, you’re not alone;, a website devoted to connecting travelers with local hosts, has a network of some 12 million members, including Jamie Matczak.

Matczak lives with her chocolate lab in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and has been a Couchsurfing host for three years. She’s hosted guests from Hawaii, France, Denmark, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Texas, Wisconsin and South Korea. “I look at it as a fellowship type of exchange,” says Matczak. “I am providing a room in exchange for a new friendship!”

We chatted with Matczak by email about why she’s chosen to host, whether she’s had any safety issues and how welcoming strangers into her home has changed the way she travels. What made you decide to start hosting?

Jamie Matczak: I had stayed with families on a trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2011 and was looking for a similar experience on a solo trip to Spain in 2012. I discovered the Couchsurfing site and loved the idea of offering travelers (surfers) a couch/room as they are traveling. I signed up, and even though I didn’t use it for my trip to Spain, I began to receive requests as a host. I had previously hosted women from France through a different program and enjoyed the experience. What are the biggest benefits of hosting?

JM: The biggest benefit is getting to know someone new, possibly someone from another country. As a traveler who has been to more than 30 countries, I enjoy hearing about life and cultures in other places. I want to have conversations and learn, and that occurs with all of my guests. I also like the opportunity to show some highlights of my city, Green Bay. Surfers arrive at my house as strangers but leave as friends. As a woman who lives alone, have you ever had any safety concerns about hosting strangers? How do you protect yourself?

JM: The site has verification checks, so you know if people are legit. Every profile also has a references area, so I can read what other hosts have said about a potential surfer. I typically don’t accept guests who don’t have any references, or if I feel something seems “off.” I tell friends or family when a surfer is arriving, just as a back-up. So far, I have not had any bad or unsafe experiences. I choose to believe that people on the site are using it for something positive. Why host people for free instead of charging a nightly fee with a service such as Airbnb?

JM: I have considered using a site such as Airbnb where a fee is charged, but I don’t think that would fit with my busier lifestyle. With Couchsurfing, I don’t feel as bad if I have to decline a request or turn off “hosting” if needed. Also, I think if I charged a fee, I would feel under more pressure for my home to be spotless and perfect. Most Couchsurfers are happy to have a bed and are easygoing if my home doesn’t look perfect. And it’s really not about the money. With Airbnb, I might gain more in my pocketbook, but not necessarily gain a richer experience.

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JM: EVERY guest has been memorable in their own way. As a few examples, I hosted two friends from Australia who were driving to all 50 states. I met two women from Wisconsin who were in Green Bay to volunteer for the weekend. I hosted a young woman from France who was studying for the semester at our local university, and when she arrived, her campus apartment was not available. In January, a father and son from Germany stayed with me because the father took his son to a Packers game as a high school graduation gift. Most recently, I hosted a young man from Korea who is walking across North America. Are you still in touch with folks you’ve hosted? Have you ever slept on their couches in return?

JM: Yes! Most of them are on Facebook, so that is a great way to stay in touch. I have not visited any of my guests, but I hope to in the future. I have tentative plans to visit the family of the German father and son, as well as a former surfer who is now in Taiwan. Has hosting people changed the way you travel? If so, how?

JM: Definitely. I lot of people ask me what I “get” out of hosting. It’s not just a new friendship, but I also feel like, as a solo traveler, I have been really fortunate on my trips. People have loaned me a cell phone to use or offered me rides when I’ve been lost. Of course, you have to be cautious and careful when traveling alone, especially as a female. But hosting people has made me more aware that most people in this world are good and want to do good things. They want to be helpful to other travelers, just as I do.

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Travel Trends

Disaster Tourism: Why Tragedy Draws Tourists

There’s a natural human urge to lay our own eyes upon the worst disasters that have befallen our fellow humans and our planet. It doesn’t even have to be a major disaster — simple rubbernecking at a fender bender while commuting taps into the same basic inclination.

But when something really big — and even really awful — happens, this human urge can be writ large, resulting in something that has taken on the name “disaster tourism,” or “dark tourism.” It is not a new phenomenon, and it often mingles with historical interests in a very honest way. Take the example of Pompeii, the site of the famous 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius that has become one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations. A more recent example is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which saw more than 50,000 casualties over only three days of battle during the Civil War. Both are formidable tourist destinations, with more than 2 million people visiting Pompeii each year and more than 1 million flocking to Gettysburg.

Pearl Harbor is another memorial site that attracts tourists in droves; the fact that there is still oil visibly leaking from the USS Arizona adds a level of intensity, poignancy and immediacy that cannot be denied. The experience of visiting is very solemn and affecting, as the 1,177 lives lost there altered the course of history, and the site is their official grave site. As a corollary, the site of the Hiroshima bombing has become a tourist attraction as well, allowing individuals on opposite sides to find solace and let go of past conflicts. The concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau are visited by over 1.4 million visitors each year, representing as complex a response to human-caused disaster as I can imagine.

Often, disaster tourism is officially encouraged. After tornadoes devastated Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, the local tourism agency created a map directing visitors to the hardest-hit neighborhoods, a controversial move that found both supporters and detractors. (The agency claimed that many visitors to the area were coming to help survivors of the storm, and the map was meant to help with that effort.) Many officials believe that New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina was helped somewhat by the influx of money from disaster tourism — certainly I did some myself.

Such sites do not always need to be the scene of large scale tragedy, and can take on much more personal or individual aspects as well, such as the places where famous figures such as Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King were assassinated. Heck, disaster sites might even be quasi-fictional; a few miles from me is a memorial to the spot at which the aliens were supposed to have landed in the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, a fake disaster in every sense. Still, folks take time out of their lives to go visit the spot.

As it turns out, the practice of “disaster tourism,” or “dark tourism” as it has become known in academia, has become a serious subject of a number of intellectuals and professors. I asked Brigitte Sion, Ph.D., for her thoughts on the subject; Sion is an independent scholar who specializes in commemorative practices such as memorial sites, ceremonies and rituals. She is the editor of the forthcoming “Death Tourism: Disaster Sites as Recreational Landscape” (Seagull Books).

Q: What is it that creates the urge or even compulsion to visit sites where disaster, tragedy or some other cataclysmic event occurred?

A: There are various reasons that bring people to visit sites of violent death: some have a personal connection to the tragedy as survivors, relatives of victims or witnesses. Others have an intellectual or cultural interest — to understand what happened, or connect the tragedy to other historical events (typically educators, historians, academics and students). Others have no connection to the site or the event, but happen to be there as tourists and visit those places as part of their sightseeing. A classic example is tourists to Cambodia who go to see the temples, the Royal Palace, etc. and end up visiting the Killing Fields or the S-21 prison without originally intending to see it.

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Q: Have you seen any benefits for folks who visit these places? That is, does something positive come of it, or is it more often a case of natural human voyeurism?

A: From my observation of tourists who visit sites of violent death (in Europe, Latin America, North America and Asia), I think that voyeurism is a marginal motivation. Most visitors come for the reasons I listed above. The benefits are multiple, but each person has a different experience and different takeaway. It can be a source for closure after mourning, a source of education, a political statement (visiting Mandela’s prison) or the fulfillment of a personal need (Jews traveling to Auschwitz, Americans to Ground Zero, etc.).

Q: Should we be concerned about how we react to these sites and memorials, or how others around us react? Is there a “right” or “wrong” way to respond?

A: Each memorial site is embedded in the local culture. It is inappropriate to visit Auschwitz in shorts and flip-flops; it is inappropriate to visit the Cambodian Killing Fields with shoes on. It is fine to take pictures at Ground Zero; it is not okay to speak loudly in the ESMA (a torture and detention camp in Argentina). Some rules are clearly described (on panels, etc.). Others are culturally inspired [or] inspired by the site itself and the tragedy.

But there is often a tension between the rules of the place and the visitors who (usually inadvertently) break those rules. Such behavior (being loud, dressing inappropriately, eating and drinking, littering) is frowned upon by survivors, relatives of victims and locals. But whether rules are enforced or not depends on the administration of the site. The challenge is that some sites need tourists for financial reasons, and have to be a bit flexible. But here lies one of the tensions.

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Q: Are there any types of sites you would recommend that people visit? Any that you don’t recommend?
A: From an educational perspective, if you want to understand a country’s history better, I recommend the S-21 prison and the Killing Fields in Phnom-Penh, Cambodia; the ESMA and Memory Park in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Treblinka or Auschwitz in Poland; and the Hiroshima Peace Museum in Japan.

Q: What’s your opinion on stewards of a specific memorial inferring very strong directions on how to respond — whether it be solemnly, or patriotically, or some other emotion?

A: Every memorial makes a political statement having to do with the politics of the time, funding, memory politics, etc. Visitors may be influenced by the narrative of the museum (through panels, brochures or guided tours), but they can also ignore that and make up their own mind about the place and its history.

Q: Many recent memorials can be very ambiguous, or at least complex, in their presentation; do you see this as a problem?

A: The challenge of new memorials being designed today is that they have to take on many functions: they not only must serve memorial purposes, but also make a political statement, be an architectural landmark, meet educational purposes, be a public place that is integrated in the urban landscape, generate income and many, many more. When memorials have to multitask so much, it is inevitable that some functions conflict with others, that some visitors will be in conflict with others, that some emotions with clash with others.

Have you visited any disaster or “dark” tourism sites? If so, please share your experiences in the comments below.

Experiential Travel

Living Like a Local in Manchester, England

Andrea Jaeckel is originally from New Jersey, but after completing her PhD in clinical psychology she joined her husband in Munich, Germany, where they lived for more than a year. Though she loved Germany, she couldn’t practice psychology there without redoing her training, so she and her husband moved to England and have been living in the Manchester area for 2.5 years. She now works in a hospital doing assessment and therapy with older adults who have had strokes or brain injuries.

Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live?

A: There isn’t one English accent. There are actually many, and they’re usually first broken down into northern and southern. Southern accents are what Americans typically think of as the English accent — it’s the one where they don’t use Rs at the end of words, and use long vowels. If you are interested in hearing a very different accent from the north, I’d recommend looking for an example of the scouse accent of Liverpool online. When my husband and I first moved here, we could barely understand people there! Aside from accents, British and American English are very different, from sentence structure and spellings to idioms and abbreviations. Two and a half years later, I’m still getting the hang of it.

Q: What’s the worst culture shock you experienced as you settled into your new home?

A: Where I live in the U.K., there are the fewest Americans around of anywhere I’ve lived. At the hospital where I work, people are constantly shocked that I’m from the US. They usually guess that I’m Canadian, citing my “softer” accent as the reason why. That can make it pretty lonely here. Also, obviously, driving on the left side of the road and sitting on the right side of the car. I’m learning to drive manual now because a manual license lets you drive both manual and automatic, whereas an automatic license only lets you drive automatic cars. It’s a lot to think about and remember for someone who has been driving for almost two decades on the other side!

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Q: Do you find that living in a foreign country makes you a better traveler when you visit other places? If so, how?

A: Yes, absolutely. Firstly, it’s just much easier to travel. When I lived in Germany, we could be in several other countries in a couple of hours! Over here, I can be in Ireland in an hour, and mainland Europe in a few — not bad. Living abroad makes me much more conscious of some of the shortcomings of America, and makes me appreciate what other countries have to offer so much more. Also, now that I’ve lived in 2 countries outside of the U.S., I’ve been exposed to many new ways to do things. I’m more adventurous and can speak more languages.

Q: Which tourist attraction in the U.K. is most overrated, and where should travelers go instead?

A: That’s a hard one; I haven’t really been disappointed by any of the tourist sites I’ve been to. To be fair, though, most Americans just really go to London, Stratford-upon-Avon and Bath (at least that’s what I did when I came here to visit as a child). I would recommend also visiting Edinburgh, York and my absolute favorite, Chester. Founded in the first century, Chester is one of the only cities that still has a completely intact Roman wall ringing the old town. There are adorable Tudor buildings, a gorgeous cathedral, and fun and unique places to shop. Also, there’s a fantastic zoo there, and the city borders Wales. Check it out!

Q: No one should visit the U.K. without tasting __________.

A: Fish and chips and mushy peas (I really love the mushy peas). Do not eat the trifle … waste of calories!

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Q: What’s the toughest thing about being an expat? The most rewarding?

A: The toughest thing is being so far away from my friends and family, especially on major American holidays. I have a very good college friend who also lives over here, and we’ve celebrated some holidays together, but mostly I try to get home. I’ve had to miss births of friends’ babies. I also miss the spontaneity of calling people the minute I think of it. We’re five hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast and eight hours ahead of the West Coast. I’m constantly doing math!

The most rewarding thing, though, is seeing how my education and training stand up abroad, and how I can make a meaningful contribution to the lives of people in other countries. My husband and I are making a life for ourselves here, and we’re thriving, which I’m really proud of. I love how outdoorsy people are in Europe, and we’ve been taking advantage of hiking a lot. We hiked in the Alps in Germany, and now we hike in the Lake District and Peak District here in the U.K.

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Sustainable Travel

Socially Responsible Travel: A Q&A with Malia Everette

Tourism doesn’t simply have to benefit the person soaking in the sun; it can also do good for the people and places you visit. Malia Everette has spent her career blending the two together, designing pleasurable, socially responsible travel experiences to Cuba, Nicaragua, Myanmar and other destinations. She founded the San Francisco-based organization Altruvistas, which, in additional to providing tours, also works to educate others in the travel industry about the benefits of socially responsible travel, funds fellowships, and provides grants and loans to communities looking to improve lives through tourism. What made you choose this career?

Malia Everette: In the late 1980s, I had two journeys that changed my life’s path. The first was to Guatemala and Belize during times of civil war and human rights atrocities in indigenous communities. The second was to North Africa, Egypt, Israel and Palestine. The experiences altered my understanding of the world.

IT: Why should travelers pay attention to being socially responsible?

ME: Frankly, if one cares about people and the planet, purchasing a tourism product based on values is absolutely an ethical mandate. Sustainable tourism helps sustain livelihoods, support local communities, and conserve the world’s natural and cultural heritage. I know that responsible tourism is a powerful tool in poverty reduction.

IT: What are some of the key attributes that a traveler should look for in a destination?

ME: Regardless of the what and where and how, you can finesse your impact by being engaged and informed as a consumer. Call a hotel, a tour operator, a transport company, and ask questions. Ask who owns the hotel. Is it locally owned? If so, more of your tourism dollars can benefit the local economy. If it’s, say, a foreign-owned ecolodge, ask about stewardship practices. Do they give back or profit share to the local community? Do they employ the locals?

When you eat out, choose a locally owned place, not an international chain. If you want to buy gifts to bring home, consider visiting local cooperatives, artist studios and fair trade organizations. This way your gift buying is also supporting the local economy.

IT: You encourage people to choose socially responsible travel instead of “sun and fun” vacations. If someone does take a more typical vacation, are there things can they do to be socially responsible during that trip?

ME: I think all of us need holidays, and having some “fun in the sun” is a good thing. We can be travelers and also tourists. Even going to a place with tons of coastal and resort tourism, one can again try to find a locally owned beach property. Don’t be afraid to go into town and find out where the locals eat and shop. Little acts go a long way.

IT: Which global destinations strike the best balance between contributing to the betterment of the community and being desirable to a traveler?

ME: I am constantly pleased to see new community-based tourism initiatives in Cambodia, Vietnam, India and Peru. I see all the amazing restoration happening in Havana every month when I visit and know that tourism receipts are doing good. Many visitors don’t know where the tourism dollars go, yet large amounts are reinvested back into restoration and local social services. I was also impressed by Rwanda’s management of mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park.

IT: You’ve traveled extensively with your two sons. Where did you first introduce them to the idea of responsible tourism?

ME: My sons are now 15 and 16. I started traveling with them when they were babies and as a single mom. I think my sons “got it” when they were about 8 and 9, when we were visiting a fair trade coffee cooperative in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. They played with the local kids and stayed at the farms. The contrast of life, the joy of community and the contrast of material wealth they got.

IT: Was it hard to travel as a single mom?

ME: I have found that traveling as a mother has been incredible. People in the service sectors are so accommodating and generous, though it might have been strange to see me with a backpack with one baby in front and one toddler on the back!

IT: What are some of your favorite travel destinations?

ME: I love so many places, but I find myself in three places frequently. First, I am in Cuba about nine or 10 times a year. I love it, the cultural resilience and the vitality of the people are ever compelling and connective. Second, I relish my annual visits back home to Hawaii, to be in nature, on the beach, eating poi, and just being home. I also feel called to the Amazon every few years. I usually go to the Sarayaku nation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The community and the jungle are inspiring, connective and restorative. Plus, I so respect their struggle to maintain their land and way of life [in the face of] petroleum exploitation.

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IT: Where haven’t you been that you’d really like to visit?

ME: I hope I have the longevity and health to enjoy many more adventures. On my short list: Bhutan, Borneo, Dominica and Papua New Guinea.

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Experiential Travel

Living in Southeast Asia: An Expat Speaks Out

Eric Rosenkranz left the United States in 1982 and has since lived in seven countries on four continents. For the first 20 years he worked for a big multinational company that sent him to a new place every few years. In 2004 he went out on his own, starting a strategic consultancy. He’s taken two Asian companies public and worked on everything from a microbrewery in Cambodia to a multi-country digital ad network. He currently splits his time between homes in Singapore and Phuket, Thailand.

Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live?

A: Southeast Asia is incredibly diverse. It has the largest Muslim country in the world (Indonesia), the largest Catholic country in Asia (Philippines), and the largest Buddhist country in the world (Thailand). Singapore is home to all ethnicities where Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Confucianists live together in harmony.

Q: What’s the worst culture shock you experienced as you settled into your new home?

A: It’s shocking when you realize not that people are different worldwide, but that they are all the same. No matter what your color, nationality or religion, people everywhere want to raise a family in peace and quiet, love and be loved. Culture shock is the worst when you realize that the jungle native beside you shares your deepest dreams.

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Q: Do you find that living in a foreign country makes you a better traveler when you visit other places? If so, how?

A: When you realize that people are the same, you can look beyond superficial trappings and begin to enjoy travel on a deeper level. Seeing the world-famous sights is always exciting, but sharing a meal with a family whose language you don’t speak is equally as fascinating. The more one travels, the more comfortable one gets with the incredible diversity of the world.

Q: Which tourist attraction in Southeast Asia is most overrated, and where should travelers go instead?

A: The two “must-see” places in Southeast Asia are the monumental Buddhist structure of Borobudur in Indonesia and the half Hindu/half Buddhist complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Both of these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and well worth the hype. Take a boat ride down the Khwae Noi River in Thailand (jump off and float downstream if you like), but avoid the modern day “Bridge Over the River Kwai” in Kanchanaburi, an ugly modern structure bearing no resemblance to the bridge blown up in the classic Alec Guinness movie (which was shot in Sri Lanka!).

Also worth seeing: The “American War” museum in Hanoi, which opens your mind to a different perspective on the Vietnamese conflict of the 1960s. Dive in the Philippines and sit by a log fire in a cottage in the Genting Highlands hills of Malaysia outside Kuala Lumpur.

Q: No one should visit Southeast Asia without tasting __________.

A: Southeast Asian cuisine is best tasted as street food. Every night at 7 p.m. Singapore closes Boon Tat Street to traffic and satay stalls are erected. Get a selection of chicken, prawn and lamb skewers, dip them into peanut sauce, and enjoy them with an ice-cold beer. Have a local take you to a roadside seafood restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by those who live there) and eat fresh clams, mussels, prawns and crab with your fingers while sitting on a plastic stool. Eat fried grasshoppers in Manila and spicy papaya salad in Isaan (northeast Thailand).

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Q: What’s the toughest thing about being an expat? The most rewarding?

A: The toughest thing about being an expat is when you cannot speak the language and an entire culture is closed off to you. Conversely, the most rewarding time is when you are able to communicate, and share hope and pain and sorrow and dreams with someone of an entirely different upbringing. Even without a common language, it is amazing how well you can get along with just hand signs and a smile.

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