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nickel and dimingIf price is no longer the differentiator between legacy airlines like Delta, United and American Airlines and so-called discount carriers like JetBlue and Southwest, what is?

I say it’s the way they treat their customers.

The legacy carriers, who used to be all about providing the best customer experience, now seem to look at their passengers simply as cash cows. On the other hand, the “discount” lines, excepting small carriers like Spirit and Allegiant, are dedicated to the idea that a good customer experience with amenities included in the airfare is the path to success.

Case in point: a recent Forbes article argues that overhead bin space will be the next formerly-included amenity to be unbundled from the airfare.

Already the most deeply discounted carriers, Spirit and Allegiant, have gone that route charging for carry-on bags.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

And while it seems inconceivable that the major carriers would follow suit, some experts argue overhead been space has already being monetized via the sale of priority boarding passes, which passengers on legacy airlines buy almost exclusively in order to gain access to overhead bins first.

A New York Times article, cited by Forbes, quotes Jay Sorenson, president of airline consulting firm IdeaWorksCompany, who said revenue for early boarding is increasing; he predicts airlines will implement more such fees.

On the other end of the spectrum, JetBlue is making flying easier — and possibly less expensive — for its customers with a new frequent flier program called Family Pooling.

The program enables families of up to two adults and five children to combine their TrueBlue frequent flier points together to make it easier to earn enough points for a free flight. Even better, the two adults don’t actually need to be related; two friends can pool their miles, then split the cost of a second ticket. And the airline is doing this without having to charge extra for bags, either checked (first checked only) or carry-on!

How ironic that the airlines that used to have to separate themselves from the pack through low fares now only have to go back to the good old days of treating passengers like valued customers rather than piggy banks on two feet.

Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

– written by Dori Saltzman

merida independence day grito de doloresImagine how many insights travelers to the United States would glean about the American character if they visited during our Independence Day celebrations on July 4.

They’d pick up some of our essential values, such as patriotism (flying of flags), love for family and community (reunions, BBQs, hometown parades), distrust for institutional authority (setting off fireworks, both legal and illegal) and occasional stupidity (ER visits because of the aforementioned fireworks). Not to mention all of those sales (pursuit of happiness?).

Of course, we’re not the only country that celebrates an Independence Day. So when I found out that I’d be traveling in Mexico over its holiday (held on September 16 — not Cinco de Mayo as many people think), I saw it as a chance to dive a bit deeper into our southern neighbor’s national psyche.

My trip to Merida, a colonial city in Yucatan that’s popular with expats, also reminded me that visiting countries during their holidays can require a few schedule (and attitude) adjustments. Here are some tips I picked up.

Read up. Before you go, it helps to learn about the country’s history. A bit of research taught me that Mexico’s struggle for freedom from Spain was just as arduous — if not more so — as our break with Britain. For one thing, the war lasted 11 years, from 1810 to 1821, compared to our eight. And Spain had been in control of the colony since 1521, establishing dominance for nearly 300 years (talk about fighting the power).

The centerpiece of Mexican Independence Day is called the Grito de Dolores, a symbolic re-creation of the beginning of the revolution. It’s broadcast nationwide from Dolores, the small town in central Mexico where it all began. On the night of September 15, crowds gather in city public squares throughout Mexico to ring bells and watch fireworks. Having a little knowledge about the first Grito, issued as a call to arms by a Roman Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, made the event more special for me.

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Expect crowds — and closures. I arrived in Cancun on September 14, the Saturday before the holiday. The airport was even more packed than usual, with Mexicans arriving from overseas to celebrate the holiday at home or taking advantage of the three-day weekend to go on short trips outside the country.

Once I arrived in Merida, I learned that some attractions I’d planned on visiting, such as the Noche Mexicana, a folk festival usually held on Saturday evenings, would not be taking place. Some roads were also closed to through traffic, which meant taking a cab to the Plaza Grande was out of the question (luckily, it was a short walk from my hotel).

Tip generously. Not everyone has Independence Day off, of course. Because of the increased crowds, the day was business as usual — and then some — for people who work in the hospitality industry. If you know that you are keeping your driver, tour operator or server from being with their families on their national holiday, it’s a nice gesture to make your tip a little more special. After all, wouldn’t you want visitors to the States to do the same?

merida independence dayTake part. After checking with my concierge to make sure it was safe, I headed out to the Independence Day festivities around 10 p.m. Sunday night. The streets were packed with revelers, mostly families, and the restaurants on the Plaza Grande were full. After grabbing a mango sherbet at Sorbeteria Colon, which has been serving sweet treats since 1907, I positioned myself on a bench to people watch (the giggling teenagers with the fake moustaches — a tribute to the bushy revolutionaries — were particularly entertaining).

I didn’t have long to wait. After the Grito at 11 p.m., the crowd erupted into cheers. “Vivan los heroes que nos dieron patria!” the chant started, before naming some of the country’s founding fathers. “Viva nuestra independencia! Viva Mexico! Viva!

At the end of the third “Viva Mexico,” fireworks shot into the sky. The national anthem started to play, and the people around me started singing. I found myself moved by their obvious love for their country, and realized that patriotism — as opposed to its more sinister cousin, nationalism — is a beautiful thing to watch, regardless of your passport.

4 Unique Activities to Do in Riviera Maya, Mexico

– written by Chris Gray Faust

cell phoneNo, that isn’t a pig flying past your head, but it is an equally uncommon sight: a company that’s actually reducing fees for travelers.

That company is T-Mobile, and those fees are roaming charges for travelers using their cell phones abroad. The New York Times reports that T-Mobile will eliminate the exorbitant rates for texts, data and phone calls that send many travelers home with hundreds of dollars in unexpected fees on their cell phone bills after an international vacation.

According to T-Mobile’s website, travelers will be entitled to unlimited free data and texts in more than 100 countries, starting on October 20 for new customers and October 31 for existing customers. Calls will cost 20 cents a minute. To take advantage, you must be part of the company’s Simple Choice Plan and have a phone capable of connecting outside the U.S.

Keep in mind that while many popular countries are covered (such as France, Italy, Australia and Japan), there are a few places where traditional — read: expensive — international rates will still apply. These include Morocco, Laos and Botswana, to name a few.

16 Offbeat Travel Apps Worth a Download

As the New York Times notes, this offers potentially huge savings over plans from competing cell phone carriers. AT&T, for example, charges $60 for 300 megabytes of data outside the U.S., 10 – 20 cents per text message and $1 (or more) per minute for phone calls.

Here’s hoping T-Mobile’s new policy succeeds in drawing globetrotting cell phone users away from other carriers; we always like to see companies that put customers first getting rewarded.

Now, airlines — about those baggage fees…

11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Here’s something fun to kick off your weekend. It’s a travel-themed picture puzzle. You just have to tie the photos together to make words. For example, a photo of an eye, combined with a photo of a full glass of water would be eye + full = Eiffel. Get it? (For another example, check out last week’s puzzle.)

This week’s puzzle is two words and represents a famous attraction.

Once you think you know the answer, post it below. You have until Monday, October 14, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Transparent Travel, who correctly guessed that the pictogram spelled “Angkor Wat.” This reader has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.


– written and created by Sarah Schlichter and Dori Saltzman

globe woman world travelThe over-the-top Huffington Post headline immediately caught my eye: “30 Epic Places You Absolutely Must Visit Before You’re 30.” As it happens, I just turned 30 earlier this year, so I clicked on the link with interest. I’d consider myself reasonably well traveled — so how many of these amazing, “must-visit” places did I manage to knock off before hitting this milestone age?

Alas, just one: the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain. (And while it was a perfectly pleasant square, I’m not sure I’d call it “epic.”)

To be fair, I’ve also been to Paris and Las Vegas, but not to the specific cafe and nightclub the author recommends. And I’ve walked around the Washington Monument in D.C. — I just haven’t gone up to the observation deck (which has been closed to the public since the city was rocked by an earthquake in 2011). You can read the full list here.

At first, reading through the list and seeing so many places I hadn’t been made me feel like a bit of an underachiever. But frankly, this list is absurd. Few travelers make it to Antarctica in their lifetime, let alone by the time they hit 30. (Dedicated Antarctica cruises typically go for $10,000 or more per person.) Bhutan is also too rich for the blood of many 20-somethings, with its “minimum daily package” requiring that all tourists spend $200 – $250 a night per person. And how many of us are going to make it to tiny, remote Palau, where the airfare alone will set you back $1,800 or more?

The Amazing, Expanding Bucket List

To put this in perspective, IndependentTraveler.com’s staff ranges in age from 23 to 50+, and in our collective decades of travel we’ve still not covered everything on the list. I guess if you’re a 20-something with an open schedule and a bottomless wallet, you just might manage it. As for me — well, at least I’ve got plenty of inspiration for my 30’s and beyond.

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How many of the places on the Huffington Post’s list have you visited? Share your thoughts in the comments below! (Don’t worry. We won’t make you reveal your age.)

– written by Sarah Schlichter

time fliesThis post is part of our Time Flies series, highlighting unique ways to spend your down time at airports around the world.

Are you tired of the stale airport air? Does the wafting smell of Dunkin’ Donuts (or Tim Horton’s, for the northern crowd) eventually just wear you down?

If so, then Singapore‘s Changi Airport will be, quite literally, a breath of fresh air.

If you’re lucky enough to be flying from Terminal 1, check out the open-air Cactus Garden. With more than 40 different types of cacti and succulents, it sure beats an hour of trying to avoid eye contact with that fellow in pajamas directly across from you at the gate.

Should you be flying out of Terminal 2, have no fear. You could always wander over to explore the cacti, time permitting. Should time not permit, however, you’ve got a natural bevy of options at your disposal. In Terminal 2 you’ll first find what’s known as the “Enchanted Garden.”

I generally fly from Philadelphia, so anything pairing “airports” with “enchanting” — without the inclusion of soft pretzels — piques my interest.

This area in Changi’s Terminal 2 features blooming flowers coupled with LED lighting and sound effects. Should you find that dizzying, the undulating path is sure to help.

For those who aren’t aware, there is a natural rivalry between terminals (or if there’s not, there should be). Terminal 2 wasn’t about to let the cacti of Terminal 1 go mano a mano with just the aforementioned Enchanted Garden. Oh, no. Fliers deserve better.

Enter the Orchid Garden, Koi Pond and Sunflower Garden — all located in Terminal 2.

butterfly garden singapore changi airport 7 Picture-Perfect Airport Gardens

If those four areas of unique airport interest aren’t enough (or conveniently located to your gate), Terminal 3 can do you one better. It’s got a Butterfly Garden.

With over a thousand colorful creatures, this garden provides a unique opportunity to get up close and personal — and even watch a new butterfly coming out of its chrysalis in the Emergence Enclosure.

Have you been to Changi? Do you know of any other airports with unique ways to pass the time? Tell us about it in the comments below.

2 Airports Techies Will Want to Visit

– written by Matt Leonard

supermarket aislesNext year I’m going to Liverpool, England, for a friend’s wedding. My husband and I plan on staying five or six days with my friend and then venturing out for three to six days. Though I’ve been to London, I’ve never ventured outside the British capital.

Inspiration for trip ideas has been easy to come by. While looking for a few really cool experiences in the Liverpool area, I checked out IndependentTraveler.com’s 13 Best England Experiences and have already added the Magical Mystery Tour to our list of things to do.

But I need more than just ideas for things to do and places to see. I need to figure out how to plan my trip as inexpensively as possible.

So how am I preparing?

I plan to consult a long list of resources, ranging from the official Liverpool and England tourism websites to asking various British friends. And, of course, I’m checking out the advice we’ve compiled here at IndependentTraveler.com. Between the various articles on money, packing, international travel and more, I’ve already started putting together a list of must-dos.

For instance, one of the best ways to save money on a trip to England, where their currency is stronger than ours, is to get the best exchange rate that I can. In Buying Foreign Currency: Get More Bang for Your Buck, Mark Rowlands, sales director at currency provider Covent Garden FX, advises shopping around before leaving home. Additionally, he says to prepare ahead of time by checking the money market. I shouldn’t trust suppliers to tell me what the current rates are; instead, I should pre-check them myself with a website like XE.com.

“You can’t buy from a wholesaler, but knowledge is power. If your supplier is adding 5 percent — which is not unusual — walk away.”

Travel Budget Calculator

Furthermore, once I’m in England and need more currency I know to stick as much as possible with credit cards and ATM withdrawals, thanks to Get the Best Exchange Rate.

Another area we might be able to save money is transportation. Do we rent a car or do we stick to mass transit?

If we rent a car, Traveler’s Ed author Ed Hewitt recommends looking at smaller rental car players, like Europcar, and not just sticking to the big names. In Car Rental Secrets We Bet You Don’t Know, he also advises using an aggregator like Priceline to find the best price:

“As I have written numerous times in different contexts over the past 15 years, the best place to get a great rental car price is Priceline. It posts prices for the majority of rental car companies.”

On the other hand, if we stick with mass transit, we’ll have to hit the rails, at the very least to get from wherever we land (Manchester, hopefully) to Liverpool and back again. According to Getting Around England: Flights, Trains and More, we’ll need to check out Virgin Trains, which offers a range of inter-city routes, like London or Manchester to Liverpool.

Customizable Packing List

If you’ve got any suggestions for me, please stop by my Liverpool and Surrounding Areas thread on the IndependentTraveler.com’s members’ forum.

– written by Dori Saltzman

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week, we offer a shot of campers on Australia‘s remote Gunbarrel Highway, which runs between the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

camping gunbarrel highway australia


Our Favorite Hotels in Sydney, Australia

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Top 25 Ways to Save on Australia Travel

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Here’s something fun to kick off your weekend. It’s a travel-themed picture puzzle. You just have to tie the photos together to make words. For example, a photo of an eye, combined with a photo of a full glass of water would be eye + full = Eiffel. Get it? (For another example, check out last week’s puzzle.)

This week’s puzzle is three words and represents a natural attraction.

Once you think you know the answer, post it below. You have until Monday, October 7, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Diana C., who correctly guessed that the pictogram spelled “Denali National Park.” Deborah has won an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further opportunities to win.


– written and created by Dori Saltzman

hiking trail skagway alaska forestAlaska is … green? Are you kidding me?

Yes, it’s true. Recently I took my first cruise to Alaska, only to discover that much of it is green, not covered in ice and snow. I was flabbergasted.

Maybe others know pretty much what to expect when arriving at their destination, but man, was I taken back. I had expected glorious white topography. Not a rain forest.

“You idiot,” some might say. “It’s summer.”

Sigh. Now I know.

It would be one thing if this was the first time this had happened to me. Sadly, my list below shows eight times I was caught off guard when arriving in a new place. Some surprises were bonuses; others were just plain weird. One day I’ll learn about this thing called the Internet and do more research.

Or maybe that surprised feeling is just the reason I love to travel!

8 Travel Surprises
1. Dominican Republic: I expected paradise. I found a handful of near-death experiences. (Santo Domingo is a very frightening place to be lost. See Drama in the DR: Lessons from a Series of Unfortunate Events for more on this topic.)

2. Chicago: I expected a city, not a beach. Bonus!

3. New York: I expected world-class shopping and dining. I smelled like kabobs and roasted nuts by the time I found either of these things.

4. Aruba: I expected tropical. I found a desert — except for the lawn-watering resorts.

5. Seattle: I expected Pearl Jam. I found sushi.

6. New Orleans: I don’t know what I expected, but not that smell. Bourbon Street at night puts the smelliest college parties to shame.

7. Boston: I expected chowdah. I found food trucks! (Don’t miss the SoWa food trucks in the South End throughout the non-frigid months.)

8. Vancouver: I expected outdoorsy attractions. I found crazy hockey fans.

Poll: What’s the Most Delightful Travel Surprise?

As I came up with this list, I started to wonder how many other travelers have gone somewhere only to find out their expectations came from the ether. How many knew that the star-studded sidewalk in Hollywood would be lined with shady characters selling some really weird swag? How many expected to be able to buy a T-shirt while checking out the Sphinx? Share your story of mistaken expectations in the comments!

– written by Matt Leonard