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book airfare keyboard airplaneToday, Frontier Airlines made a preemptive strike against booking sites like Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz by penalizing fliers who purchase Frontier flights anywhere except the carrier’s own Web site. According to the airline’s press release, “For customers purchasing Frontier’s lowest fares through outside booking channels … customers will get their seat assigned at check-in, earn 50 percent EarlyReturns miles, and pay higher fees [for services like itinerary changes, unaccompanied minors and pets in the cabin].”

In other words, the fares may be the same, but if you want to choose your own seat and get full credit for your frequent flier miles, you’ll have to book directly through the airline’s own Web site. FlyFrontier.com is also the only place travelers can access the airline’s Classic and Classic Plus fare options, which offer perks such as free checked bags and itinerary changes.

A Clever Secret to Getting a Cheaper Airfare

Although most airlines sell a large percentage of their tickets through online travel agencies, they make more money on bookings through their own sites, for which they don’t have to pay a commission. According to an Associated Press report, the booking sites charge the airlines about $10 to $25 per ticket — which adds up quickly in an industry with such tight margins.

But forget what’s best for the airlines; which booking experience is better for the consumer?

The booking sites’ clear advantage is the ease of comparing schedules and prices among multiple airlines (although I’ve found that aggregator sites like Kayak.com and TripAdvisor Flights are even better, as they include multiple booking sites as well). If you’re looking to buy your flight in combination with a hotel stay or car rental, the Expedias of the world make it easy and convenient.

9 Must-Do’s Before a Long-Haul Flight

Personally, though, after I’ve done my initial research, I nearly always find myself making my purchase on the airline’s Web site. If the price on the booking site and the airline is the same — and it usually is — I prefer to cut out the middle man. In the past, I’ve occasionally had problems checking in on an airline’s site when I booked through an outside agency, as the airline didn’t seem to recognize my confirmation code. I also find that fare and fee options are spelled out more clearly on the airline’s own site. And if anything ever goes wrong with my flight arrangements, booking directly through the airline means there’s no question about who’s responsible and whom to contact for help.

Which booking option do you prefer?

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

berlin Brandenburg gateTwenty-two years ago tomorrow, the first step was taken towards a united Germany (and an Iron Curtain-less Eastern Europe) when the two Germany’s signed a treaty to unite East and West. While the Iron Curtain didn’t actually come down that day, it certainly sustained a major chip.

Thinking back on it, I’m reminded of my own trip behind the Iron Curtain when I was 16 years old. I’m struck by how far away those countries seemed.

In some cases (like Berlin and Warsaw), the actual hours and minutes it takes to get there have shortened, as nonstop flights to these cities are now available from many U.S. cities. But in all cases, the feeling of distance traveled has shrunk significantly.

Nowadays, when you arrive at the airport in Budapest (or Warsaw or Prague), it doesn’t seem all that different from the airport you departed from. There are arrival, transfer and departure signs in the local language and English; plenty of people are smiling at you; and everyone is welcoming you to their country. Chances are you’ll whiz through security and immigration and be on your sightseeing way in no time.

Berlin Travel Guide

Head out onto the streets of Budapest and Warsaw, and you could be in any major European city. Even Prague, with its charming medieval architecture, is so overrun with expatriates from the U.S. and England that you never feel you’ve traveled too far from home.

But 22 years ago, it wasn’t like that at all. Back then those destinations were sooo far from home – not because of the physical distance but because of how far away from the familiar they were.

Until I went to Budapest at age 16 (back in 1986), I had never seen soldiers walking around with automatic weapons before. I’d seen it on the evening news, sure. But not in places that tourists go.

As a teenager I was used to going through an airport basically unremarked by security. But in Budapest my luggage was checked thoroughly. For what, I’m not sure. We were told ahead of time that blue jeans were a hot commodity in Eastern Europe, so maybe these guys (who were probably only a few years older than me) were hoping to score a pair of jeans or a Walkman!

Once in Budapest, the faraway-ness of it all intensified. There were soldiers everywhere. People walked quickly, with their heads down, and never smiled our way. But the most foreign (and scariest) moment of all occurred when a girl in my group accidentally took a photograph of a police car and two policemen while snapping a picture of an immense building. They immediately came towards us, demanded her camera and then exposed the film.

Culture Shock: Outside the Comfort Zone

Never before had any of us ever been subjected to anything like this. To say we were farther from home than just 10 hours or so would have been an understatement. Truly, we had traveled to another world.

Did you ever travel behind the Iron Curtain? How “far away” was it for you?

— written by Dori Saltzman

suitcase chairThanks to everyone who participated in last Friday’s photo caption contest. We received some great submissions, but our favorite was from
James Reardon, who wrote, “Attention all passengers, who is the Lazy Boy that left his luggage unattended?” James has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

Runners-up that we also loved:

“Today, Go-Fly Airlines announced there would be yet another add-on fee if you didn’t bring/provide your own seat.” — Nancy James

“Comfortable and useful, but will cost a fortune to check in.” — Elaine

“Call security, someone’s trying to hide something in this chair.” — Scott Forbes

To see all of the submissions, click here.

This week’s photo was snapped at an airport by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of our sister site, CruiseCritic.com. Do you have a funny or bizarre photo that we could use for a future caption contest? Send it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put “Caption Contest” in the subject line.) If we feature your photo on our blog, we’ll send you a prize.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

What’s going on in this photo? Come up with a clever caption for this bizarre travel pic and you could win an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

chair made of suitcases

To enter, drop your wittiest one-liner (or two-liner, or three-liner…) in the comments by Sunday night, September 9, 2012, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll contact the winner and reveal our favorite caption on Monday. Please be sure to abide by our community guidelines when commenting.

Today’s photo was snapped at Indianapolis International Airport by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief of our sister site, CruiseCritic.com. Do you have a funny or bizarre photo that we could use for a future caption contest? Send it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put “Caption Contest” in the subject line.) If we feature your photo on our blog, we’ll send you a prize.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

airlines behaving badlyThis post is part of our “Airlines Behaving Badly” series, which chronicles the oft-wicked ways of the air travel industry.

If it weren’t September I’d think the recent news about Ryanair’s CEO calling passengers “idiots” was an April Fool’s joke. I mean, the CEO of a company who relies on its customers for business wouldn’t really call them idiots, would he?

But now that my initial shock has passed, I’m actually more surprised that I was surprised this happened. Despite the fact that business would dry up if passengers decided to revolt, Ryanair and its low-cost compatriot in the U.S., Spirit Airlines, are the two most customer-unfriendly airlines.

In his most recent “up yours” moment, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary called passengers who do not print out their boarding passes ahead of time “stupid” and “idiots,” the Huffington Post reported.

According to the article, O’Leary’s comments were prompted by a customer who complained about having to pay 300 euros to print out five boarding passes before flying from Alicante, Spain to Bristol, England. The whopping 60 euro charge for getting a boarding pass printed at the airport was upped from 40 euros in 2011 after a Spanish court found the fee to be illegal. The company vowed to fight the ruling and increased it rather than get rid of it.

Got a Complaint? Take It to Twitter — Even if Airlines Say Not to

When the angry customer took to Facebook to share her frustration, O’Leary responded in his usual customer-friendly (NOT!) manner:

“We think Mrs McLeod should pay 60 euros for being so stupid. She wasn’t able to print her boarding card because, as you know, there are no internet cafes in Alicante, no hotels where they could print them out for you, and you couldn’t get to a fax machine so some friend at home can print them and fax them to you.”

Per The Independent, as quoted by the Huffington Post, O’Leary said that virtually all passengers print their boarding passes in advance, so to the few who don’t, he says “bugger off.”

O’Leary is not alone in his anti-customer spirit. Spirit Airlines’ CEO Ben Baldanza is also known for brushing aside customer complaints.

In an interview with FoxNews.com, Baldanza made it clear he does not subscribe to the “customer is always right” philosophy, saying that customer complaint rates are “an irrelevant statistic.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, out of 100,000 passengers last January, Spirit received 8.27 complaints, by far the worst record in the industry.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

But he told FoxNews.com you have to look at the statistics the other way around. “If you ran a restaurant, and out of every 100,000 customers, 8 of them said they didn’t like your menu, would you change your restaurant?” he asked. “Why don’t we interpret that 99.92 of all customers have no complaints? Because that is what it says.”

He most famously revealed his feelings about his customers in 2007 when he hit “reply all” instead of “reply” on a customer complaint that had been forwarded to him. In doing so he sent his reply not only to his employees but to the original customer as well. He wrote, “Please respond, Pasquale, but we owe him nothing as far as I’m concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He’s never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.”

Call me naïve, but I still believe the airlines are here to serve my needs and treat me accordingly. If that means I have to pay an extra penny or an extra $100 to go with an airline that still treats me like a valued customer, so be it.

Maybe folks that go with the low-cost carriers and expect to be treated well are idiots. What do you think?

– written by Dori Saltzman

tablet computer wi-fiSo many of us spend our lives connected via the Internet. We earn our wages and pay our bills online. With whatever money is left, we shop online. We stay connected to family and friends. We read our news, our books and magazines on electronic devices. We share photos, ideas and snarky comics via social media.

You’d think travel would be the one time we go off the grid, but it’s usually not possible. Travel is often work-related, requiring the posting of content and the reading of emails. We may leave family behind who we have to check in on while we’re away. And a few of us — not naming any names — are addicted to electronics. We panic when there’s no Wi-Fi available. And we don’t like to pay for it.

Yes, Virgin America offered free in-flight Wi-Fi last holiday season, and perhaps will again. And there have been a few promotions where Wi-Fi was offered free or discounted, but for the most part, we pay. When Internet service is provided by Gogo, as with AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, United and Virgin America, it costs $4.94 to $19.95 for mobile devices (smartphones, tables and e-readers) and $11 to $49 for computer devices (laptops and netbooks). JetBlue and Southwest each have their own Internet service. Southwest’s is not yet widely available, but its free portal contains content such as a flight tracker, shopping and games, all at no charge. Internet access beyond that is $5 all day, per device.

Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas

Paying for Wi-Fi annoys us , even if it’s only $5. We have hotspot entitlement syndrome. And we’re not alone. When we asked on Facebook if you’d use Wi-Fi if it was offered in air for free, few of you would take a pass.

Hilary Huffman Sommer said, “I would definitely use it, especially when traveling for work or when work intrudes on my leisure travel.”

Gregory Ellis also would log on to work. “Nothing else to do while in those busses with wings,” he wrote.

“Absolutely,” wrote Michele Cherry. She admitted to the amount of time she can kill on Facebook and that she can’t sleep on airplanes. And she already pays for Wi-Fi on international flights or longer domestic ones.

Tips to Sleep on Planes

Ofelia Gutierrez and Marcia Cloutier also already pay for Wi-Fi, so getting it for free would be a bonus.

“Beats listening to my husband snore,” Vicki Hannah Gelfo explained.

Not everyone is leaping at that free bandwidth. Saadia Shafati Shamsie would prefer airlines not offer free Wi-Fi; she’d be too tempted.

And Deb Crosby won’t give up her sleep and reading time while flying.

One more naysayer to continued connectivity is Lavida Rei. “I would prefer if everyone stayed off the grid and off my nerves while in flight,” she wrote.

We’ll take that under advisement, Lavida, and we’ll tap lightly when answering that e-mail.

— written by Jodi Thompson

man sandcastle beachThanks to everyone who participated in last Friday’s photo caption contest. We received some great submissions, but our favorite was from
Jean, who wrote, “This is all the castle I can afford in this economy!” Jean has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug.

Runners-up that we also loved:

“Ancient Egyptians nothing, I told you those pyramids were easy to build…” — Luke

“I’m making a ‘Sand’wich.” — toni sullivan

“What else was I to do without cell service? I had to keep my thumbs busy somehow!” — Olive Sampson

To see all of the submissions, click here.

Do you have a funny or bizarre photo that we could use for a future caption contest? Send it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put “Caption Contest” in the subject line.) If we feature your photo on our blog, we’ll send you a prize.

— written by Sarah Schlichter