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cell phone airplane plane man businessmanI knew the guy would be trouble the moment I spotted him ambling up to the Miami International Airport gate from which my Continental flight was leaving. I was on my way back to Philadelphia last week from a convention, and I just had a feeling that the unkempt loudmouth yakking on a cell phone and clutching a plastic cup of red wine would be sitting uncomfortably close to me.

I was wrong, of course. He was next to me. The last one on the plane, he stumbled down the aisle, looked at me huddled in the window seat, muttered an obscenity and squeezed himself into the middle. He immediately took out his phone and continued the argument he’d evidently left behind on the concourse.

Truth be told, I’m not a good flier, forever fearing every little bump and groan the aircraft makes. So I tend to take “rules” seriously, never questioning whether to put my seat back in the full and upright position or to turn off small electronics. My seatmate was a different breed — after the flight attendants made the announcement to stow away anything with a battery, he hung up the phone and started to text instead.

This went on for 10 minutes. No flight attendants caught onto the fact that his phone was still on, though I couldn’t get my mind off of it. Uncharacteristically, I nudged him as we began to roar down the runway and said, “Tell me you’re going to turn that thing off before takeoff.”

He muttered another obscenity and turned it off.

So what sort of danger were we in? Very little, most likely. I checked the Web site of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which prohibits the use of cell phones on flights. In 2007, the agency considered lifting the ban, but didn’t. Here’s why: “The FCC determined that the technical information provided by interested parties in response to the proposal was insufficient to determine whether in-flight use of wireless devices on aircraft could cause harmful interference to wireless networks on the ground. … In addition to the FCC’s rules, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits in-flight use of wireless devices because of potential interference to the aircraft’s navigation and communication systems.”

The Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters” program put the interference theory to the test and came out with a reassuring result: It found there was a “one in a million chance that some new cell phone could interfere with those instruments.” Slim chance perhaps, but still not worth the risk. Check out a two-minute abbreviation of the show here.

So what happened during our landing? Naturally, the guy couldn’t keep his phone off. Minutes into our descent, he pulled out his cell and started texting again. Once again, no flight attendant reprimand came. But this time, I just stared out the window and wondered why so many people think the rules don’t apply to them.

How do you feel about the use of cell phones in flight? Leave a comment or vote in our poll.

— written by John Deiner

yosemite half dome reflectionEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: More than 100 of America’s national parks typically charge an entrance fee — but on select dates in 2011, visitors will get in for free. Your best chance to explore is during National Parks Week, which runs April 16 – 24 (that includes two full weekends). The other free dates are the first day of summer (June 21), Public Lands Day (September 24) and Veterans Day weekend (November 11 – 13).

Included in this deal are not only some big-name national parks — such as Acadia, Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon — but also famous battlefields like Vicksburg and Little Big Horn, and historic sites like the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Catch: Although most of the free days take place outside of the parks’ summer high season, you can expect this deal to draw big crowds, especially if you go on a weekend with nice weather. Arrive as early as possibly to beat the hordes.

The Competition: If you’d like to visit a few national parks in one escorted trip, this summer package from Amtrak Vacations might be right up your alley. Book early and you can save up to $400 off Amtrak’s 11-night Peaks to Pacific package, which includes accommodations, most meals, sightseeing in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and scenic train travel along the way. With the discount, the package starts at $4,489 per person.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Vacation Package Deals.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

calculator errorJust when you thought it was safe to stop worrying about the TSA’s new full body scanners, our favorite PR-challenged government agency now finds itself in the midst of another controversy. Turns out that a variety of mistakes were made when the full body scanners were tested for radiation, including basic mathematical errors such as failing to divide by 10. (And here I thought it was just wordsmith types like me that found math hard!)

The errors made it appear that some machines were giving off 10 times as much radiation as they actually were … and that wasn’t the only problem with the reports. Other anomalies noted by the TSA included missing data and inconsistent responses to survey questions. (The tests were carried out by the machines’ manufacturers and third-party maintenance providers, not by the TSA itself.)

The good news, according to the TSA’s blog (which features several posts on the issue), is that the errors did not affect the safety of the machines — and that even the falsely inflated radiation levels were well within safe operating parameters. But as a precaution, the TSA is having all of its full body scanners retested and will post the results on its Web site, www.TSA.gov.

To learn more about the machines, see From Pat-Downs to Full Body Scanners: The TSA Firestorm.

While I’m glad the TSA will be making future reports publicly available, I can’t help seeing this as yet another black eye for an agency that’s repeatedly proven difficult for travelers to trust. Can we really rely on other data about the safety of the full body scanners, given the problems with these reports? Is the agency a victim of bad press, or is it really as inept as it appears?

Weigh in with your opinion below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is Macau (also spelled Macao)! Pictured are the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, completed in 1602 and once the largest Catholic church in Asia. Macau, a longtime Portuguese colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1999. It’s now a popular day trip from Hong Kong (it’s just an hour-long boat ride away). Learn more about Macau in Hong Kong Essentials.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Every Friday, we’ll feature a photo of an unidentified place here, on our blog. Think you know where the photo was taken? Leave your guess in the comments below — and check back on Monday to see if you were right! Get the answer in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right).

Hint: A ruined cathedral is one of the most famous landmarks in this former Portuguese colony, now known for its Vegas-style casinos.

Leave a comment below to guess the destination!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

hotel room woman bathrobe towel laptop bedOn a recent trip to Atlanta, I learned that one of city’s newer boutique properties, the Ellis Hotel, offers a women-only floor. “What a cool idea,” I thought. As a woman who often travels solo — and who hasn’t always felt safe doing so — I liked the idea of a keycard-secured area just for female travelers. Why hadn’t I heard of this before?

After I got back home, I did a little research. Turns out that there are a few other hotels around the world that offer women-only floors — and there are even places where men are forbidden throughout the entire property. I was intrigued and impressed by many of the hotels, like the woman-owned and -operated Lady’s First Design Hotel in Zurich, which reserves 12 part-time staff positions for local unemployed women in need. The Luthan Hotel & Spa in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, gives female travelers, particularly Saudi businesswomen, a comfortable place of their own within a country that still has fairly rigid gender roles. The hotel is staffed entirely by women, so Muslims can remove their veils when they arrive. And I love that the female-only Artemisia Hotel in Berlin has a gallery featuring work by women artists.

But as I looked into other women-only hotel spaces, I didn’t feel quite as inspired. Take the Naumi Hotel in Singapore, which offers a “ladies floor” with “feminine touches of pink hues and flowery wallpaper,” according to its Web site. “For a total immersion of the senses, the discerning lady traveller can enjoy the range of female magazines over a cup of coffee, pamper herself with premium amenities or even indulge in a refreshing spa session.” Flowery wallpaper? Girly magazines? Swoon!

In the guestrooms on its women-only floor, New York City’s Premier Hotel provides a yoga mat, straightening iron, curling iron, lighted makeup mirror and “women’s magazines.” And the aforementioned Ellis Hotel in Atlanta offers, among other amenities, a “kiss cam to say goodnight to your loved ones.” Hmm. Wouldn’t a male traveler ever like to call home and get a little face time with his kids?

On one hand, I’m encouraged that hotels seem to be trying to respond to what women want. But to what extent are they simply pigeonholing us into tired old stereotypes? Sure, some female travelers do read fashion magazines and appreciate frou-frou bath products … but assuming that all of us do, just because we’re women, feels a little reductive to this particular “lady” traveler.

Of course, some will also raise the question of fairness. If there’s a women-only lounge or floor, why shouldn’t there be one just for men? And do women really want or need to be segregated in their own section of a hotel?

Personally, I believe there’s value in the safety and camaraderie fostered by women-only spaces, and I’m glad there are hotels out there that offer the option to female travelers who want it. Just make mine without the girly mags.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Carrick-a-Rede Rope BridgeHappy St. Patrick’s Day! In honor of this cherished holiday, we scoured our forums to find out what our readers like most about Ireland — and it turns out there’s a lot to love in the Emerald Isle. From thousand-year-old ruins to wind-swept coastal towns, below are seven magical must-see places and itineraries in Ireland, recommended by our well-traveled readers.

Have you been to Ireland? Share your favorite Ireland sites in the comments.

1. “I recently took a trip to Ireland and visited Skellig Michael, a World Heritage Site off the country’s western coast. It was probably the most amazing place I have ever visited. It is a barren island (covered in puffins!) that housed a colony of monks more than 1,000 years ago. I had to climb 700 feet of steep stone steps to see the monks’ ancient beehive-shaped dwellings, which are still almost completely intact.” — Metravellongtime

2. “Surrounded by mountains, Belfast is pristine, clean and elegant. Gorgeous architecture, great shopping, friendly people. It offers opera, theater, restaurants, plus a great nightlife.” — costelj1

3. “I liked Hore Abbey, in Cashel, County Tipperary. Naturally, everyone goes to the incredibly well-preserved Rock of Cashel, so imposing on its higher ground. The Rock is solid, but there’s something much more interesting about Hore in its ruined state. There’s no doubt that a mystical experience — an old white terrier bade us follow her to the abbey — helped consecrate my visit.” — WackyHeathen

4. “We spent one week on the Dingle peninsula, which I would highly recommend, one week in Galway, based outside of Clifden, and one week in Cork. I really enjoyed all three, which were very different.” — TheTraveler

5. “I loved the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge on the coast in County Antrim. The bridge is suspended about 100 feet above the water and leads to a teeny little island with great views of the coast. Walking over the bridge was pretty scary to me (you can feel it swaying a bit and I’m afraid of heights), but the views were worth it.” — soliteyah

6. “We have been to Ireland three times. We love the southwest area of Ireland — especially Killarney. The ring of Kerry is so beautiful, as is the Dingle Peninsula.” — dthebolt

7. “For the best places in Ireland, I gravitate to the west: Cork and especially West Cork for wild scenery and wonderful people; Connemara and Mayo — high mountains, kayaking, walking and great pubs; Sligo and Donegal — distinctive towns and a different culture than the rest of Ireland; and the north — unspoiled areas of great beauty and hospitable people. Overall, the people are Ireland’s greatest natural resource!” — fastnet

Want more Ireland advice? Visit our Ireland travel forum.

–written by Caroline Costello

hiker smartphone smart phone gpsEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

There’s no question that mobile apps can make travel easier, by quickly converting one currency to another or helping you find the nearest restaurant or bathroom. But with so many thousands of travel apps on the market, trying to decide which ones to use can make your life more complicated as well. Do you really need 28 different apps to help you get through a week-long trip to Paris?

In Essential Travel Apps, Part Two: Accessory Apps, Ed Hewitt recommends one convenient app that can do the work of many:

“The free Where app distinguishes itself from the competition by trying (often successfully) to collect the location-specific information you can find in a number of other, more specialized apps into one uber-app. So instead of having one app for news, and one for local movies, and another for local gas prices, and another for weather, and another for restaurants — you get the idea — Where has a small app-inside-an-app for each. In many cases, the app within the app has still another app inside — in the Coffee applet, for example, you can choose only nearby Starbucks franchises, or nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, or nearby Au Bon Pain, etc.

“Where gets all its info from reliable sources — the weather comes from AccuWeather, the gas prices from Gas Buddy — and I found that it could almost take the place of an entire handful of apps already on my phone.”

Other multi-function apps include Expedia’s TripAssist — which allows you to book a flight, track itineraries (including those not purchased through Expedia), get real-time flight alerts and view alternate flight info — and the Yelp app, which allows you to search for a wide range of local businesses from restaurants and banks to drug stores and gas stations.

See more recommendations in Essential Travel Apps, Part One: The Basics.

Which travel apps can’t you live without?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.

 spa packI’m a serious budget traveler. On the road, my accommodations of choice typically involve shared bathrooms, views of brick walls and tube TV’s that get three to five channels. But on a recent trip business to Colorado, I had the good fortune of staying at the Ritz-Carlton, Denver — a far cry from the moldy basement apartments and bargain-priced B&B’s to which I am accustomed.

The hotel is wonderful, and it definitely lives up to that song “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which plays on repeat in all the elevators. (Okay, it doesn’t, but I think it should.) At the beginning of my stay, I put great effort into finding something wrong with the Ritz, thus proving that luxury hotels are a big rip-off and that I am a genius for unearthing $60-a-night centrally located rooms while evading bed bug infestations and burglary.

But there was nothing wrong with the Ritz. Service was impeccable. Hotel staff smiled at me as if I were an adorable kitten. The sushi bar menu didn’t include anything vegetarian, but the chef insisted on creating a customized vegetable roll just for me, which he promptly served on the house. I even looked under the bathroom sink and on top of the shelves in the closet for dust; there was none. I was beginning to see the point of paying $300 per night for a hotel room. But there was one little problem (and it wasn’t the Ritz’s fault).

As a newbie luxury hotel guest, I couldn’t figure out whom to tip and whom not to tip. I had this nagging feeling that I should hand a folded bill to every person who said “Good evening,” held open the door or dispensed advice on what to see in Denver — and this would be a lot of people. I visited the ATM and stuffed my purse with one-dollar bills. I felt like I was on my way to a strip club.

In Hotel Tipping, we recommend tipping the valet $1 to $2. Good to know. But at the Ritz, at least three people were involved in getting us into our vehicle each time we needed it: one guy called for the car, another drove the vehicle to the front of the hotel and a third staff member opened the car doors for us. This process caused me much anxiety. I frantically stuffed bills into everyone’s hand, afraid I would neglect to tip someone, thus unleashing untold karmic retribution upon myself.

We asked, and it turns out valet staff members pool their tips at the end of the day, so there’s no need to go crazy throwing money at everyone in a uniform standing near the car. This piece of information was quite helpful, and now I’m on the hunt for even more tipping tips!

Share your best advice on tipping in the comments below, and you could win a swanky Ritz-Carlton travel spa pack (pictured above).The person who shares the most creative, practical tipping tip by March 22 will win the prize. Be sure to include a valid e-mail address when you comment.

–written by Caroline Costello

Wyndham Rio Mar Beach ResortEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Book a stay of five or more nights at a participating Wyndham Resort and get your fifth night’s stay for free. Plus, receive a complimentary $100 American Express Reward Card, which can be used wherever American Express is accepted.

This offer is valid at select resorts in the U.S., the Caribbean and Mexico for travel through the end of the year. You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck by booking this deal at one of Wyndham’s all-inclusive properties, where nightly rates range from about $250 to $500 and cover meals, drinks (even alcoholic ones) and activities. We checked rates for a five-night summer stay at the Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach in the Bahamas and spotted savings of as much as $524 (the cost of one night’s stay in a deluxe room) in addition to the on-the-house $100 American Express card.

The Catch: Don’t bank on using your American Express card on a glass bottom boat tour or scuba diving lessons while on vacation. Your card will be shipped to your home address six to eight weeks after your completed stay. And keep in mind that when you book, you won’t see immediate savings, as your free night’s stay will be deducted when you check out.

The Competition: We’ve unearthed juicy discounts at several other brand-name hotel chains. Hilton Worldwide Resorts is offering a 30 percent mark-down at select international and domestic properties for stays booked three months in advance. Additionally, Starwood Hotels is running a “Better Tomorrows” promotion that features 40 percent off every second night’s stay at select resorts in North and South America. (Stay two nights and receive 40 percent off one night’s stay, stay four nights and get 40 percent off two nights, etc.)

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Hotel Deals.

–written by Caroline Costello