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airplane seatsNo, that’s not a typo in the title. As America’s collective waistline expands, some airline passengers may be looking at even smaller seats on their flights. According to a report by TerminalU.com, airplane manufacturer Airbus may decrease the width of middle and window seats on its A320 aircraft models, which each offer two sections of three-abreast seating, separated by an aisle.

The move, which is still under consideration, would decrease each of the aforementioned seats by one inch (from 18 inches to 17) in favor of increasing each aisle seat by two inches (from 18 inches to 20). The larger seats would be designed to accommodate larger passengers — or merely those looking for more roomy flights. And, of course, airlines would have the option to charge extra for the “privilege.”

For years, we’ve been hearing horror stories of overweight passengers being booted from flights or forced to pay for two seats as per airline obesity policies. I’m glad the industry is taking a constructive look at the issue and presenting possible solutions, but I’m not convinced Airbus has arrived at the right one just yet.

Surviving the Middle Seat

Although an extra fee would likely be more affordable for larger folks than an entire second seat, there’s no word yet on how much airlines would charge for that extra fee. And, while this idea gives other fliers the option to choose more seat room, it also means that more passengers may find themselves needing — rather than wanting — to purchase for-fee seats as the size of a standard seat shrinks. I also wonder whether those sitting in regular seats would pay smaller fares since their seats are smaller — somehow, I doubt it.

And what about those who simply prefer sitting in the aisle? Some airlines already charge an extra fee for select aisle seats, and this would expand that unfortunate trend even further. Meanwhile, folks who prefer the window seat would have to sacrifice space to sit in their favorite spot.

I think someone needs to go back to the drawing board on this one. Perhaps this could be implemented for some rows but not all, or maybe some rows could include just two seats instead of three, essentially making each an entire half-seat larger.

What’s your take on Airbus’s idea — awesome or ill-advised? Sound off below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

cnngo hitlerThere are seemingly endless tips on how not to offend the locals while traveling. We know that tank tops and shorts won’t fly past the flying buttresses of Notre Dame. We know not to leave a tip on the table while dining out in Tokyo if we don’t want to be pursued out of the restaurant to have our money returned by an insulted server.

We try to familiarize ourselves with local customs. Pack scarves and slip-on shoes. Make an effort to blend in. (See our brand-new 12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place for advice on this front.) We make this concerted effort not to offend out of respect for cultures different from our own. However, there are times when we, as the outsider, may feel awkward, insulted or even threatened by local customs or behavior.

Imagine walking through a mall in central Bangkok where a popular store sports a nearly life-sized doll that resembles the hate-child of Ronald McDonald and Hitler. Young people imitate the faux Fuhrer’s salute, posing for photographs with it. (Check out CNNGO.com for more photos.) They wear T-shirts bearing cartoonish images of the Nazi dictator as a pink Teletubby, in a panda outfit or with the fast-food chain mascot’s red bouffant hairdo and yellow jumpsuit. To Western eyes, it’s offensive. It’s disrespectful. It’s also ignorant.

Similarly boorish is hefting a beer with a Buddha-tattooed arm right outside that very same shopping mall in Bangkok. In fact, Thailand is considering a ban on tourists getting religious tattoos because we fail to understand how offensive it is to drink alcohol, party and misbehave with such sacred ink showing.

Fair enough. We can respect that. But some things make us bristle — like being rebuffed if, as a woman, we try to sit down alone at a cafe in Morocco, or dancing the night away in a Jamaica club before we realize the lyrics to the music encourage homophobic violence.

Culture Shock: Outside the Comfort Zone

How do you respond when you find yourself at odds with local ways or laws?

– written by Jodi Thompson

suitcase bag floorWhat’s the first thing you do when you arrive home after a trip? For me, it’s usually catching up on e-mail, downloading photos off my camera or taking a shower to wash away all those hours on a plane. But one thing it isn’t is unpacking.

Some travelers are fanatical about unloading their suitcases as soon as they arrive home. “I can’t relax until I’ve put everything away,” says fellow IndependentTraveler.com blogger Jodi Thompson. “I do it immediately.” Meanwhile, I might leave my own bag sitting on my bedroom floor for a week or more, pulling out an item or two at a time as I need them.

My partner, who generally unpacks within a few days, has accused me of being a slob. And, well, it’s a fair accusation. (I have a similar problem putting away my newly clean duds on laundry day, or putting junk mail in the recycling bin instead of leaving it strewn across the kitchen counter.) But I don’t think that’s the whole story.

4 Signs You Have a Packing Problem

For me, it’s always a little depressing to come home from a trip, and unpacking is the final sign that my vacation has reached the end of the road. Refusing to unpack is my subconscious way, however futile, of pretending that my trip isn’t truly over.

Or maybe I’m just a slob.

Check Out Our Interactive Packing List!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

academy awards oscarsWho doesn’t love a good awards show? Inspired by the Oscars this weekend, we’ve put together our own list of bests and worsts from the travel industry over the past year. The envelope, please…

Best Performance by an Airline
No, we’re not talking about on-time performance. We’re talking about music, dancing and having fun — and that prize goes to Finnair, for its toe-tapping Bollywood performance in honor of India’s Republic Day.

Worst Performance by a Leading Man
Two thumbs down for Alec Baldwin, who was booted off a plane for refusing to turn off his iPhone when the cabin crew requested that all portable electronic devices be shut down. His attitude that he was somehow too good to follow the same safety rules as the rest of us earned pans from many travelers.

I’ll Take a Large Popcorn and a Ticket to Paris

Best Newcomer
In a sea of new hotels that opened in 2011, one stood — quite literally — above the rest. Hong Kong’s brand-new Ritz-Carlton is now the highest hotel in the world, reaching some 1,600 feet into the sky. Toast the view from the rooftop bar on the 118th floor.

Lifetime Achievement Award
Steve Jobs, who passed away in October, will always be remembered for innovations that changed the world — including the travel industry. As we wrote in Steve Jobs: A Traveler’s Tribute, “That awesome ATM finder or the currency conversion app you can’t globetrot without wouldn’t exist if Jobs hadn’t dreamed up the interface for it.”

Which awards would you give out to members of the travel world?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane women laptopDutch airline KLM recently launched “Meet and Seat,” an opt-in program whereby would-be fliers can share their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, which are integrated into an airplane seating chart. The social benefits are easy to grasp: Agree to meet for a pre-flight beer (or non-alcoholic beverage), share a taxi after the flight or even choose a like-languaged seatmate, who may in turn choose to sit elsewhere based on your profile pic, triggering a virtual game of cat and mouse.

The program is currently only offered to solo fliers booked on three flights — Amsterdam to New York, San Francisco and Sao Paulo — but KLM says there are expansion plans in the works.

We’re all for an airline offering a free means to enhance the experience of being wedged into seat for seven hours — and it got us musing: Which other travel scenarios could benefit from a little pre-trip social engagement?

1. At-sea meat and eat (note the pun). While more flexible alternatives are available, nearly all cruise ships still offer the popular set-time, set-seating model in their main dining rooms. Chatting with strangers over dinner can be an exciting prospect … until Ron drops a comment about “the liberal media,” and Steve, a journalist, turns his lobster tail into a weapon. Lines do try to match diners a bit by age, but it would be a novel concept to give the power to the passenger.

2. Bus buddy. Megabus and BoltBus, the U.S. coach companies touting $1 starting fares (alas, I haven’t landed one yet), could certainly adopt KLM’s model, minus the pre-assigned seating. Given the operators’ young audience of assumed Facebook users, we have every confidence that there’d be many takers. After all, it’s more enjoyable to mock the explosion of sound coming from a neighbor’s headphones when the laughter can be shared. The pre- and post-trip incentives — again, that beer and taxi share — are also built in.

Why You Should take the Bus on Your Next Trip

3. Tour with your new best friends. No doubt you want to take that full-day excursion from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and Masada. But as a travel writer who often flies solo or in tandem, I’ve been stuck too many times on the right tour with the wrong crowd. I’ll never forget an excursion in Cairo where fellow travelers had an hour-long conversation about which of their friends and acquaintances were obese. Others on the tour refused to de-bus a few hours in because they were sick of all these pyramids, “which look exactly the same.” Needless to say, the tour suffered from the lack of interest in the surrealistic profundity of a 5,000-year-old tomb rising 400 feet into the sky. Condescension aside, if we could only join a tour group based on common interests, every traveler would be a little happier.

Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

Now it’s your turn: Is there a travel scenario you’d like to see socialized … or a company that’s already doing it?

– written by Dan Askin

arc de triomphe paris traffic nightI think Jacques the taxi driver knew what my problem was. What my problem still is, really. I’m a big coward. Adventures are fun — I like them — but in the beginning of a trip I just want to get where I’m going, have something to eat, perhaps have a shower. After that, exploring is fine.

Jacques knew this because we’d chosen to get into his taxi instead of using the Metro like the other one billion people in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport. That would have cost us about seven euros, taken 20 minutes and been way too easy.

Jacques knew that the only reason we got into his taxi was that we thought it was going to be easier.

Our Favorite Paris Hotels

His was the first taxi in line outside the airport. He looked just like Lou Reed, so we decided that we could probably trust him. He leaped out from behind the wheel and helped us with our bags.

After driving for about 10 minutes, joining a busy flyover of traffic, it occurred to me to tell him where we were actually going. “Sure!” he said, winding down his window to indicate with his hand. “We’ll go there now.”

We got to talking. This was a good thing.

“All this on the left,” he said, pointing out of the window, “is the old town. This motorway is like a big wall. Everything inside it is old Paris, historical Paris, and everything outside it is new. Most of the people live outside the motorway. That’s how it is.”

He pointed out of the other side of the car at a formation of shiny skyscrapers. They looked as if they were in need of a clean. “See those?” he said. “The rock climber Alain Robert climbed up those in the 90′s. He did it with his bare hands and no ropes or anything.”

I looked at the buildings. They were outside the motorway.

“And when he finished,” the taxi driver grumbled, “they took him down off the roof and drove him straight to court.” He shook his head.

Paris Travel Guide

Farther into town, Jacques (as we’d learned was his name) decided to drive around the Arc de Triomphe five times to show us how easily he could do it. “I don’t understand why people are so afraid!” he shouted over his shoulder as the tires squealed and the meter clicked up a couple of digits.

We passed a swish-looking hotel on the Place de la Concorde. It had balconies and footmen and little potted plants. Jacques took a moment to tell us that this was where the President of France had spent his first night after being elected.

“With,” he growled accusingly, turning around in his seat to look at us, “a woman that was not his wife…”

After unnecessarily prolonging our route even further so that he could shout at the Eiffel Tower — “Go on! Try it! It’s good luck! In Paris, we call her the fat lady!” — we arrived at our hotel. The fare was enormous — the price of a nice meal for two.

“That’s what it is,” Jacques shrugged when I expressed my surprise. He looked even more like Lou Reed than he had at the airport.

Have you ever argued with a Lou Reed look-alike taxi driver over a colossal fare obviously inflated by a ridiculously lengthened route that included backtracking, deviations, extra tangents and oddly recurring streets, not to mention five times round the Arc de Triomphe?

Neither have I. Jacques had me down from the start. I am a coward.

It was a great way to see the city, no doubt. I actually enjoyed it far more than I would have enjoyed the Metro. But, I realized after shelling out nearly all of the notes in my wallet, it was definitely one of the more expensive guided tours I’ve ever been on.

Have you ever been taken for a ride while traveling?

– written by Josh Thomas

earth and moonIn addition to being Presidents’ Day, yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic trip into space. Although there was some planning, he packed no bag and he didn’t have much choice in his travel wardrobe. And he certainly didn’t have an annoying travel companion. In 1962, Glenn boarded Friendship 7, not much more than a converted ballistic nuclear missile, and was blasted into space, becoming the first American to orbit the Earth.

There was no travel insurance. In fact, several earlier launch attempts were abject failures. NASA scientists weren’t even sure if Glenn’s eyesight would survive zero-G weightlessness. But NASA was in a hurry. There was a rush to get Glenn in orbit, whether it was safe or not, whether it was possible or not. Russia had beaten the U.S. in the space race five years earlier by launching Sputnik, a silver ball with a flashing light on it. National pride was on the line.

Now that NASA’s manned space program is idle, the only ride into space for an American astronaut is aboard a Russian rocket. Yet the demand by civilians for space tourism is growing. It’s a final frontier for those who have checked everything else off their must-see list.

Top 10 Undiscovered Destinations

vss enterpriseThe U.K.’s Sir Richard Branson began organizing Virgin Galactic in 2004 and began test flights in 2008. Virgin Galactic has its sights set on launching wealthy adventurers into orbit from the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, currently underway in New Mexico. The space vehicles are “designed and built with revolutionary, but proven technology” according to Virgin Galactic’s Web site, with safety “engrained in the culture of our space line operation.”

To experience space travel, you’ll have to be age 22 to 88 at the time of the launch and endure two days of G-force and safety training. From 50,000 feet in the air, not the ground, you’ll accelerate to about 3,000 mph, nearly four times the speed of sound, and launched to about 68 miles above the Earth’s surface. The total trip takes about 3 hours, with only a few minutes out of your seat to experience weightlessness and the stunning views.

9 Destinations to Visit in 2012

Although Virgin Galactic has been taking deposits to hold reservations on SpaceShipTwo since 2005, the price has been reduced and will continue to go down. The current starting price for flights is $200,000 with refundable deposits starting from $20,000.



– written by Jodi Thompson

bus stop coupleHer name was Mary, and she was worried about her teenage grandson. He was acting up, doing poorly in school. And she rarely got to see him; he was in the custody of her daughter’s wealthy but abusive ex-husband. It sounds like the plot of an overwrought novel, but of course, true life is often odder — and more interesting — than fiction.

Mary was sitting in front of me aboard a train to Philadelphia, spilling her life story to a stranger named George. The balding older man in a Philadelphia Police jacket had boarded a few stops after she did, and within five minutes they were making small talk about which train station would be closest to Mary’s new hairdresser. Within 15 minutes, George was listening sympathetically to Mary’s worries and recommending local treatment centers where Mary’s grandson could get help. Within 25 minutes, George was offering to pray for Mary and her family, right then and there on the train. (When he finally got off, I noticed what I hadn’t before: the “CHAPLAIN” written on his police jacket.) All the while I was shamelessly eavesdropping, a paperback novel abandoned in my lap.

The Best Travel Photos You Don’t Take

The fleeting intimacy of this conversation is something frequent travelers will instantly recognize. There’s something freeing about talking to someone you know you’ll never see again — the woman who sits next to you on the plane, the local with whom you share a few pints at an Irish pub, the couple you meet over breakfast at a B&B. Sure, sometimes it’s just chitchat. But often a connection with a stranger can be both meaningful and memorable, despite — or perhaps because of — its ephemeral nature.

George and Mary’s conversation on the train was like a book I won’t have a chance to finish. Will Mary’s troubled grandson get the help he needs? Will her daughter wrest custody away from her abusive ex? I’ll never know. But her conversation served up another example of what travel gives so generously to those with their eyes and ears open: little pieces of other people’s stories.

20 Ways to Blend In with the Locals

– written by Sarah Schlichter

A few years ago, I traveled with my mother when she — and I quote — wanted to see the Grand Canyon before she died. We flew to Las Vegas, rented a car and toured the Valley of Fire and the Hoover Dam. Once at the Grand Canyon, we were able to see quite a bit of it despite my mother’s mobility constraints — and a spectacular glass-enclosed helicopter ride allowed us to view the rest. It was a wonderful trip. I’m not certain how many times I annoyed her, but I do know that I threatened to toss her off the edge of the canyon only once, so I’d call that a successful trip.

grand canyon



grand canyon aerial view



Turns out that my mom isn’t the only senior who’s got the Grand Canyon on her bucket list. “National Parks in the West” made a recent list of the top vacations for senior travelers in 2012, put together by YMT Vacations. Here’s the full top five:

5. Ireland

4. Alaska Cruise and Train Tour

3. National Parks in the West

2. Rhine River Cruise

1. Hawaii

For all the seniors out there, do you agree with this list? What are your own must-see destinations this year (or before you die, if you tend toward the dramatic)?

For the younger set, have you ever traveled with a senior? Would you do it again? (Or are you serving time for tossing him or her over the edge of the Grand Canyon?)

Learn More About Senior Travel

– written by Jodi Thompson

airplane skyI never thought I’d say this, but maybe — just maybe — those extra baggage fees are worth it after all. According to a report by CNN, in 2011 the airline industry’s rate of lost luggage was the lowest it’s ever been. Last year also saw the lowest-ever incidence of passengers being involuntarily bumped from their scheduled flights.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, which has collected luggage data for 23 years and bumping data for 16, released last year’s stats for the nation’s airlines on Tuesday.

So what does this mean for air travelers? The quick and dirty is that, overall, airlines reported an on-time arrival rate of about 79.6 percent, just a smidge better than 2010 (79.8 percent). Industry-wide instances of mishandled baggage clocked in at about 3.39 cases per 1,000 passengers (down from 3.51 in 2010), and involuntary bumps came in 0.81 occurrences per 10,000 passengers (down from 1.09 in 2010) — not too shabby.

Find Cheap Airfare for Your Next Flight

As for the top-performing airline, AirTran did the best in the luggage-handling department, with just 1.63 reports of lost or damaged luggage per 1,000 passengers. Hawaiian Airlines, blessed with good weather year-round in most of its destination cities, came out on top in the flight delay sweepstakes: nearly 93 percent of its flights arrived on time in 2011. In terms of bumping, JetBlue had the lowest rate, with just 0.01 involuntary bumps per 10,000 fliers.

I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, great. But which airlines performed the worst?” American Eagle, American Airlines’ regional carrier, walked away with the highest rate of mishandled baggage, with 7.32 reported cases of lost or damaged luggage per 1,000 passengers. Then there’s JetBlue, which had the lowest percentage (73.3 percent) of on-time flight arrivals. And Mesa Airlines, another regional operator, took the title for most denied boardings in 2011, with 2.27 involuntary bumps per 10,000 passengers.

The Top Five Airlines for In-Flight Entertainment

What do you think? Did you have a particularly good experience flying in 2011?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek