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airport securityIt’s now possible to skip those snaking security lines at the airport. Earlier this month, the TSA introduced a pilot program called “PreCheck,” which permits pre-screened passengers to go through an expedited security lane at select airports. Travelers who’ve joined the program can speed through airport security if they’re flying on Delta Air Lines out of Atlanta or Detroit, or flying on American Airlines out of Miami or Dallas.

Right now, PreCheck’s reach is pretty limited. But if you’re departing from an eligible airport sometime soon and you’re not a fan of shuffling languidly through security lines for the better part of an hour, you might want to think about signing up. This week, the TSA Blog published a post featuring detailed instructions on joining PreCheck. Here’s how it works:

First, if you are a “United States citizen and are currently a member of CBP’s eligible Trusted Traveler programs (Global Entry, SENTRI, NEXUS), you are automatically qualified to participate in the TSA PreCheck pilot as long as you are flying on a participating airline at a participating airport,” reports the TSA Blog. If you’re a member of a frequent flier program with Delta or American, you’re also eligible, and you should have received an e-mail with instructions on how to sign up for the program. Check your spam folder or call your airline’s customer service number if you can’t find the note — you need that e-mail to join.

For more information on how to sign up for the TSA’s PreCheck program, visit the TSA Blog.

Travelers who don’t meet the requirements for PreCheck (I’m right there with you) can still achieve an expeditious airport experience. Read 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster for tips on zooming through your hub.

— written by Caroline Costello

napsacUnless you’re 18 inches tall, sleeping on a plane can require Zen, calculated fatigue, a prescription, and three or four Finlandia and tonics.

Enter the Napsac ($47.50): one part backpack, one part sleeping apparatus for the spatially oppressed.

Inventor Joe Maginness sent over a sample of his travel innovation, which is basically a well-constructed backpack topped with a U-shaped memory foam pillow. Inside, there’s a support beam that keeps the walls of the bag rigid and upright. Tired? Wear the backpack in reverse, tighten the straps, rest your chin in the bag’s soft concavity and ponder a placid mountain lake on a windless morning.

Sleeping on Planes

If a horse can sleep standing up, surely I can sleep stuffed in coach with the Napsac on a Continental red-eye to France. The bag was screaming — nay, neighing — for a field test.

Try as I might to get comfortable, though, sleep did not come. I felt too much downward chin pressure when using the bag. After about 90 seconds, a hungry grizzly started trotting through the lake toward me, and I needed to readjust, firing a metaphorical gunshot in the air, to ease my jaw tension. Ninety seconds later, he was back. I have a theory that the chin issue was caused by my torso being longer than the sac, thus creating too much space between pillow and beard. Either way, the in-flight squirming continued.

Perhaps my lack of comfort was my own fault. When using the Napsac, proper posture — a problem for anyone bound to a desk for a third of his life — is key. A straight back allows the sac to be sufficiently tight against one’s body and held in position.

While I couldn’t quite hit the sack with the backpack, I did use it frequently during idle moments on the road. I was the slightly hunched traveler, chin resting on pillow, on the fountain steps in front of Notre Dame, on a park bench, in an art museum studying Impressionists. When I was just looking for a quick break, I called on the sac. And despite my in-flight insomnia, I found myself commending the product for its above-standard bag qualities. The Napsac fit a laptop in a padded pocket, and a guidebook and a sandwich in the main compartment. A cell phone, an MP3 player, a packet of cookies and car keys occupied the many zippered pockets. Frankly, it was just a nice carry-on bag, pillow or not.

Now it’s your turn to try the Napsac. My field tested (gently used) version is up for grabs. Simply post your tip for sleeping on an airplane in the comments, and we’ll choose one responder at random to receive the bag.

— written by Dan Askin

suitcase packingEvery 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 or signing up for our newsletter.

Last week, we explained how old nylons, ratty towels and empty egg cartons can be converted into useful travel gear. (Check out Top 10 Travel Essentials You Can Find in the Trash if you missed it.) But our ideas were just the tip of the garbage heap.

We asked our readers to weigh in with their own thoughts about how to transform trash into travel treasure — and you responded. One of our favorite tips came from member lynclarke, who wrote:

“Save that big oversized shopping bag from one of the ‘good’ [department] stores. Put it in the front flap of your suitcase. It will be an instant raincoat for yourself or your suitcase. [Also], save those ‘Mylar’ mailing envelopes which seem to be the rage these days. Make sure your travel documents, receipts, reservations, all important papers and ALL ELECTRONICS are wrapped in one. There is nothing more discouraging [than] to find your carry-on bag will be stored underbelly in one of the small planes BUT right now it is sitting on the tarmac in the pouring rain.”

I’m also a fan of reusing those simple plastic grocery bags that always seem to proliferate in my kitchen. They’re ideal for padding fragile items, separating dirty laundry from the rest of my clothes, and wrapping up wet swimsuits or muddy hiking boots.

How do you put your trash to good use when you travel? Weigh in on our message boards or leave a comment below.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

winter new hampshireEvery 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 or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Southwest Airlines just kicked off a 72-hour sale featuring fall and winter flights for as little as $35 each way. Travel dates range from November 30 through December 14 and from January 4 through February 15. You can fly on any day of the week except Sunday. (We’re thrilled to see a sale that doesn’t tether travelers exclusively to midweek departures.) Fares are tallied based on length of flight as follows:

-Flights up to 450 miles cost $35 each way
-Flights from 451 – 1,000 miles cost $65 each way
-Flights from 1,001 – 1,500 miles cost $95 each way
-Flights more than 1,501 miles cost $125 each way

The Catch: While travel dates extend from November through February, flights around the holidays are excluded. Also, there’s that 72-hour problem. This sale doesn’t leave much wiggle room for anyone still sketching out a winter travel itinerary.

The Competition: AirTran Airways is running a fall and winter fare sale that’s virtually identical to this Southwest offer. But let’s be honest. AirTran isn’t exactly Southwest’s competition, per se. Southwest acquired AirTran in May 2011, and the two carriers will eventually merge into a single operator.

So how do the sales compare? Fares are similar and travel dates are the same. You’ll want to check prices for your particular itinerary with both airlines to see which one offers the best bargain for you. But keep a wary eye on those extra fees.

Southwest defeated AirTran in our deal of the week dust-up for one big reason: surcharges. First off, Southwest’s baggage policy beats AirTran’s by a mile. Southwest allows each passenger to check up to two bags for free, whereas AirTran charges $20 for your first checked bag and $25 for your second. AirTran collects an extra $15 for reservations made over the phone; Southwest doesn’t. And Southwest allows passengers to change their plans and use what they’ve already paid for future travel with the airline. AirTran, on the other hand, pockets a $75 change fee for any itinerary alterations.

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

— written by Caroline Costello

cityslipsEarlier today, we asked our readers to reveal their favorite travel shoes on our Facebook page. No single brand or type prevailed. Our well-traveled readers recommended everything from classic leather walking shoes like SAS Free Time to trendy offerings from Tom’s footwear. Some folks even hit the road Neanderthal style. Said John Channel, “None … [I] like to feel the earth.”

Unlike many of our Facebook followers, I’ve yet to find a go-to pair of travel kicks — and I’m not keen on wandering shoeless through the airport. So when CitySlips sent me some foldable shoes to review, I was pumped. CitySlips are lightweight, bendy ballet flats, which fold into a small, easy-to-pack shape. The shoes come with a nylon carrying pouch that unfurls into a larger tote. (Sorry, guys. CitySlips doesn’t make shoes for men.)

On a recent trip to Europe, I packed my pair of classic CitySlips, which sell for $24.95 on the company’s Web site. I was pleased to discover that each shoe took up about as much room as a balled-up pair of socks. I could even fit one shoe tightly into a pant pocket.

I always wear my bulkiest shoes in transit, for the sake of saving suitcase space. So during a transatlantic flight and a three-hour road trip, I donned knee-high boots. When I finally arrived at my B&B, pulled off my boots and slipped on the CitySlips, my feet sang. The shoes felt soft and cozy; they offer the comfort level of slippers, but you can wear them in public without looking like you’ve just escaped from the hospital.

Score one for foldable shoes. But there’s a downside: CitySlips weren’t built for long-distance walking. The flats were originally designed to be backup shoes for travelers caught in painful stilettos or blister-inducing boots. I tried wearing mine for a few hours while navigating the cobblestone streets of Paris, and I didn’t feel like I was getting the appropriate support for heavy walking. CitySlips are better suited for long car or plane rides, breakfasts at the hotel and short walks to close-by cafes than for multi-mile schleps through city streets.

Want to try ’em for yourself? Enter coupon code 10OFF and receive a 10 percent discount when you purchase your shoes on CitySlips.com.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us about your favorite travel shoes!

— written by Caroline Costello

Prescott Pines InnHere’s the answer to last week’s “How Much Is This Hotel?” quiz. Play along with future hotel quizzes by subscribing to our blog.

We have a winner! The correct answer to last week’s How Much Is This Hotel? contest is $300. Dale, who hit the bullseye, has won an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt.

The room pictured was the lodge (also known as the chalet) at Prescott Pines Inn in Prescott, Arizona. This Victorian B&B is conveniently located near a number of natural attractions, from the Grand Canyon (a two-hour drive away) to Prescott National Forest (a stone’s throw away). Guests who stay in the self-catering lodge can cook their own meals in a full kitchen, watch movies from the B&B’s DVD library or hike through the surrounding countryside. Read more about the Prescott Pines Inn in Weekend Getaways Under $500.

Check back this Friday for another shot at winning a prize.

— written by Caroline Costello

Every Friday, we’ll feature a photo of an unidentified hotel here, on our blog, and we want you to guess how much it costs to stay there. Leave your guess in the comments below and you could win a prize. Get the answer in your inbox by subscribing to our blog.

What’s the price of a night in a rustic Southwestern lodge? Enter your guess in the comments, and be sure to include a valid e-mail address so we can contact you in case you win. The first person to guess closest to the price of the room without going over wins an IndependentTraveler.com T-shirt. Here’s the room:

Here are three little hints to help you win:

-This private lodge, which sleeps up to 11 people, is located on the grounds of a Victorian B&B.

-This lodge has three bedrooms, a full kitchen, two bathrooms, a fireplace and a private deck.

-This property is located near Prescott National Forest.

We’re looking for the maximum nightly price for two people as listed on the property’s Web site, excluding holidays, coupon codes or package rates. Enter your answer by Sunday night, October 16, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time to win. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Monday.

— written by Caroline Costello

bathroomAdd any beverage to our list of foods to avoid before flying. The Independent reports that Michael O’Leary, CEO of European discount carrier Ryanair, plans to excise two of the three toilets on his company’s planes. The move will allow room for up to six more seats to be installed in lieu of the loos.

O’Leary told The Independent that such a change would reduce fares by about 5 percent per ticket. The gigantic downside, of course, is that there’ll be just a single available restroom on all Ryanair planes (Boeing 737’s that carry up to 189 people, according to SeatGuru.com). It’s a scary thought — especially when one considers the possibility of a toilet malfunction happening in the only lavatory on a full flight.

This isn’t the first time Ryanair’s unsettling initiatives have had passengers squirming. In Spirit vs. Ryanair: Who’s the Ugliest Airline of Them All?, we blogged about the carrier’s egregious fees (from a 20 GBP charge for infant fliers to a 6 GBP booking fee) and poor customer service ratings, among other disappointments. Back in 2009, O’Leary even proposed charging passengers to use the toilet on flights. That plan has since been flushed, but the CEO’s latest anti-bathroom campaign is even worse.

I’d rather pay a few pounds to use the lavatory on a plane than share a single commode with two hundred fliers. What’s your take? Share your thoughts in the comments.

— written by Caroline Costello

sleep airplane planeEvery 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 or signing up for our newsletter.

Ever since my first flight, a hop across the Atlantic to London, I’ve been unable to sleep on airplanes. Put me on a train or in the passenger seat of a car, and I’ll nap like a champ — but something about the cramped conditions and ultra-dry air of a plane keeps me from drifting into anything more restful than a semi-conscious doze.

On my last flight I tried taking an antihistamine, which makes most people so drowsy that the label warns against operating heavy machinery while taking the medication. But while my head felt hazy and my eyelids drooped, I still spent the entire overnight flight awake, casting occasional jealous glares at the sleeping passengers around me.

As a last-ditch effort, I’ve been tempted to try to skimp on sleep in the days leading up to a flight. However, in 10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight, Ed Hewitt cautions against it:

“Don’t count on a long-haul flight as a good place to catch up on sleep — it’s not. As attractive and intuitive as it seems to get on a long-haul flight extremely tired, hoping to sleep the whole way, you are in for a world of hurt if you can’t sleep for any reason. You will be on the plane long enough to catch a few winks even if you are somewhat rested.”

Another reason not to skip sleep before a flight: Staying rested and hydrated can help combat the effects of jet lag. Traveling and changing time zones are hard enough on your body without adding more sleep deprivation than necessary into the mix.

Tips for Sleeping on Planes

So I’m going back to the drawing board. On my next flight I’m going to try a stronger sleeping pill — but I’ll bring a few good books, just in case.

Do you sleep well on planes? Vote in our poll!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

My dream suitcase is a perfectly arranged kit complete with clothes rolled just right — as to unfurl with nary a wrinkle — and everything in its place; I’ve never achieved this. My real suitcase usually looks like a raccoon’s been rifling through it, and I often lose things like jewelry or toiletries within the rumples of my balled-up clothes.

Consequently, I’m intrigued by luggage organizers. Products like space bags and packing cubes promise a perfectly packed bag. But do they deliver? Try one for yourself. Subscribe to our blog by Tuesday, October 18 at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time for a chance to win this set of Packing Cubes and Travel Shoe Bags found exclusively at GreatUsefulStuff.com (if you’re already a subscriber, you’re automatically entered to win):

packing aids

The following is an overview of three common packing aids. How do you organize your suitcase? Share your strategy in the comments!

Compression Sacks & Space Bags
Last month, I reviewed the Eagle Creek Pack-It Compression Sac, a space-saving bag that compresses its contents by allowing air to be pushed out from inside the bag. The verdict? The bag did what it was supposed to do: it squashed a large pile of clothes into a tight, heavy chunk of clothes, creating a good deal of extra space in my suitcase. But when I arrived in my destination, my clothes were, as I had suspected, very prune-like. And while the compression sack makes clothes less voluminous, it certainly won’t help you beat airline weight limits for baggage.

Packing Cubes & Organizers
You can buy packing folders and cubes, toiletry kits, and shoe bags from virtually any travel supply store. These serve to separate your provisions into manageable compartments, and prevent wrinkles and spills. We recommend these products for travelers embarking on multi-destination itineraries that involve lots of unpacking and repacking. But don’t overdo it. Although packing cubes and kits promote organization, they won’t help you fit more stuff into your bag.

Plastic Bags
A simple plastic grocery bag makes an excellent suitcase organizer. It’s free, you can label it and it’s wonderfully lightweight. The downside: A suitcase filled with lumpy plastic bags won’t win any beauty contests. For more ideas like this, read 10 Travel Essentials You Can Find in the Trash.

— written by Caroline Costello