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airplane seatsOn a recent flight to Iceland, something happened to me that I’d never experienced before: I had an entire row to myself on a plane.

Sure, I’ve occasionally had a middle seat open when I was on the aisle, good for some much-appreciated extra elbow room. But for the most part, I’m used to flying on completely full planes and worrying less about whether I’ll have an open seat next to me than about whether there will be an open spot in the overhead bin for my carry-on. (Anyone else been forced to gate-check a rollaboard at least half a dozen times?)

Of course, full planes are ideal for the airlines — more passengers equal more profit. And these days the airlines are doing a good job of selling out their flights more often than not. According to a press release from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of passengers who flew on all U.S. airlines between January and June 2014 was the highest it’s been since 2008 (before the economic crash).

Surviving the Middle Seat

So that’s why my empty row — on a red-eye flight, no less! — felt like such a miracle. Our plane was delayed briefly on the tarmac by a lighting issue, and as the technicians worked on it I watched the open door with an eagle eye, certain that the missing couple would show up, breathless after a sprint through the airport and ready to claim their seats. But then we were pushing back from the gate and the space was mine, all mine.

Alas, there was one minor snafu: the armrests wouldn’t go up, which did rather defeat the purpose of having a whole row to myself. Still, I was able to lean back against the window with my knees bent, and toward the end of the flight I figured out that I could even lie down in the fetal position with my hips angled out around the armrest. It’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to heaven in economy class.

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What’s the best surprise you’ve ever encountered while flying?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

a row of airplane seatsThings in the United States are generally bigger than in the rest of the world. Cars are bigger, meal portions larger; in general, everything is supersized. Except when it comes to airplane legroom.

Anyone who has recently flown in economy on a U.S.-based airline is painfully aware of the lack of space between one seat and the next — both next to you as well as in front of you. At just 5′ 2″ I often feel cramped and squished into my seat. Putting my bag underneath the seat in front of me makes it even worse, robbing me of what little room I have to stretch my legs.

This lack of space is pervasive on U.S.-based airlines. So when CN Traveler published an article called “Which Airline Has the Most Legroom? A Complete Guide” my attention was piqued. Could I discover which of the major airlines I use have the most legroom? Even if it meant driving the extra hour to JFK airport rather than Newark, I’d do it for an extra inch of space!

Get the Best Airplane Seat

Reading the article brought good and bad news.

The bad news: Unless I’m prepared to move to Canada, I’m just going to have to get used to less legroom. Air Canada offers the largest pitch (the distance from the headrest of one seat to the headrest behind it) range of all the airlines, coming in at 29 to35 inches. JetBlue is actually better; even though the maximum amount of legroom you’ll find on a JetBlue plane is slightly smaller (34 inches), the minimum amount of legroom is 32 inches. Unfortunately, JetBlue only flies to a small percentage of the destinations I typically fly to.

The good news is that United (my Newark-based airline) and Delta rank third in terms of seat pitch. Both provide anywhere from 31 to 33 inches of legroom. American and US Airways planes provide slightly less at 31 to 32 inches of legroom.

The disparity was apparent to me even in “upgraded” seats on two recent flights: one a transpacific flight to Tokyo in a United Economy Plus seat and the second a transatlantic flight to the U.K. in an American Airlines Cabin Extra seat. I don’t have the actual measurements, but I can assure you the difference was clearly felt.

Air Canada and JetBlue also can provide the most seat width, though some Air Canada planes actually offer the narrowest seats, as well. Seats on United, Delta, American and US Airways are all the same width, but are also beat out by AirTran, Hawaiian and Allegiant.

Surviving the Middle Seat

At the opposite end of the spectrum, predictably, Spirit Airlines is the stingiest when it comes to legroom. But more surprising, Southwest planes are narrowest.

For now, I can only hope United keeps its seats the way they are. That way, I know I’m close to getting the most legroom available in the U.S. (with Delta), even if it’s only an extra inch. And when the opportunity arises, JetBlue here I come.

How important is legroom to you? Would you drive to an airport further away if it meant getting a bigger seat?

– written by Dori Saltzman

airplane seatsTwo United Airlines passengers got one heck of a time-out on Sunday when an argument over a few inches of space escalated, leading to the rerouting of their plane.

According to the Associated Press, the fight began when an unnamed male passenger attached a Knee Defender — an apparatus that clips onto your tray table to prevent the person in front of you from reclining — to his seat so he could use his laptop uninterrupted. Although United Airlines has banned the gadget on its flights, the passenger refused to put it away when asked by members of the cabin crew, prompting the unnamed woman in front of him to throw a cup of water in his direction.

At that point, the Denver-bound flight, which departed from Newark earlier that day, was only halfway to its destination when the pilot made an unscheduled landing at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to have both passengers removed.

Although police met the plane when it landed and questioned both passengers, it was deemed to be a customer service issue, and no arrests were made.

The kicker here, though, is that both passengers were sitting in the plane’s Economy Plus section, which already offers more legroom than standard economy seats to begin with.

The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room

So what do our readers think about space and whether fliers are entitled to it?

“As tight as seats are getting, they should not recline,” says Julie Reiss Justice on Facebook. “I have had my iPad smashed from a seat reclining quickly … I personally will not recline.”

Tom Vertrees agrees that space is limited, but comes to the opposite conclusion: “Airlines shouldn’t squeeze seats so close together in the first place. If the seat reclines then it should be allowed.”

And Joshua Senzer wonders why the situation escalated so far in the first place: “The device is banned by United, the carrier in question. The fact that the individual failed to comply with [flight attendant] requests to remove it is telling in regards to those who would rather use something like this than simply attempt communication with another human … just my .02.”

10 Annoying Habits of Our Fellow Travelers

What do you think? Is it rude for passengers to recline their seats? Should the use of devices like Knee Defender be allowed? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

woman staring out airport windowThe dreaded airport layover has happened to us all — I’m not talking an hour to grab a snack in between flights; I’m talking mind-numbing half-days. Sure, there are shops and sometimes even massage centers and airport gardens to pass the time, but if you’re an antsy traveler like I am, you’re staring longingly out the window and wondering what new adventures await beyond the tarmac. Unfortunately, exploring a new city in a short amount of time with a lot of unknowns can be just cause for hesitation — get lost, get back late, and another long wait for a new flight might befall you.

Luckily for impatient but practical explorers like us, a number of major cities around the world actually offer tours designed to fit within the span of a layover, and get this: some of them are completely free.

Istanbul: Anyone flying through Turkey’s best-known city with a layover of six hours or more is welcome to a historical jaunt about town, free of charge with Turkish Airlines tour operator Touristanbul. Sites include the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar.

London: Self-proclaimed “original founders of the layover tour,” London Magical Tours aims to whisk you away from Heathrow or Gatwick on a customized tour of London, Windsor, Hampton Court or Oxford. A private chauffeur may be a nice way to escape to the city, but these tours aren’t free — a price quote will depend on the needs of your group.

Singapore: While Changi Airport is renowned for being one of the world’s best, that shouldn’t stop you from seeing what’s beyond it. If you have just four hours to kill between flights, you can join the Free Singapore Tour, presented by Singapore Airlines in partnership with the airport. During your two-hour guided tour you will see the world’s tallest observation wheel, the Singapore Flyer; Gardens by the Bay, an arrangement of three spectacular waterfront gardens; Chinatown; Little India; the Colonial District and more. If you have four and a half hours, consider the City Lights Tour — Singapore sightseeing by night.

Best Airports for Layovers

Reykjavik: Turn your layover in Iceland into a mini-vacation. Icelandair allows passengers to turn layovers into a stopover of up to seven days — for no extra cost. That means a few days, not just hours, to tour Reykjavik and its surrounding sights (hey, you might never be back in Iceland). Tour operator Reykjavik Excursions provides day tours with pick-up from the airport. Popular options include a guided city tour and a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Prices vary by package.

Beijing: An eight- to 14-hour layover in China’s capital city is no sweat with a Beijing Layover Tour. Starting from $60 per person, spend the day with a private tour guide and driver to visit a number of themed destinations such as “Olympic Sites” or “Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City.” The value is not as great — just a limited number of stops for the price — but unless you speak the language, a tour is your best way to see some of the things China is famous for, without having to navigate it yourself. (And it beats reading magazines all day in an airport chair.)

9 Ways to Make the Most of Your Layover

Bogota: All you need is five hours to take a layover tour of Bogota, Colombia, with Bogotravel Tours. For a fee, this local tour operator will arrange pick-up and drop-off at the airport, and provide a day trip showcasing the capital’s social, historical and political centers — and, of course, an opportunity to grab a cup of coffee. If you’ve had your share of sitting and want to stretch your legs a bit before flying out, try one of Bogotravel’s bike tours.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

puppies and kittens are relaxing to nervous fliersPills, booze, loud music, deep breathing — these are some of the desperate methods employed by the nervous flier to get through takeoff, landing and every bump in between. But one airline is encouraging a remedy that is a tad more … wholesome: puppies and kittens.

Starting this September, British Airways will air “Paws and Relax,” an in-flight channel available on long-haul flights that showcases cute and cuddly domestic animals. As reported by the Telegraph, the programs will include “Simon’s Cat” — an animated series about a man and his cat; “The Secret Life of Cats,” a popular BBC documentary about cat cams; and “America’s Cutest Dog” (think Animal Planet’s “Too Cute! Puppies”).

9 Up-Close Animal Encounters

The channel also features cameos from residents of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the U.K.’s oldest home for dogs and cats, located in London.

British Airways believes the new pet programming will “enhance the wellbeing of customers,” in addition to being just plain endearing. If viral cat videos on the Internet have taught us anything, it’s that people love watching them.

If, somehow, animals aren’t your thing (or you’ve seen every episode on repeat), then switch over to the “Slow TV” channel, which features footage from a continuous, seven-hour train ride from Oslo to Bergen. (Potentially a better sleep aid than Xanax.)

Which in-flight channel do you hope they have on your next flight?

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– written by Brittany Chrusciel

airport baggage claimBy next year, there may only be one airline in the U.S. that lets fliers check a bag for free.

While both JetBlue and Southwest currently allow travelers to bring aboard a complimentary checked bag (Southwest even lets you have two!), Bloomberg reports that JetBlue is looking into overhauling its ticket pricing structure, which will likely lead to a few extra fees for those who pay the cheapest possible fare.

According to Bloomberg, the airline plans to create multiple fare classes, some of which would include a free bag and/or other services. Fliers could pay a higher rate for a more inclusive fare, or pony up for their checked bag if they elect the cheapest available fare. The changes are expected to take effect within the first six months of 2015.

This sort of bundling isn’t new. Frontier Airlines and Air Canada are among the carriers that currently offer multiple fare options when booking. Frontier’s Classic Plus fares are fully refundable and include a free checked bag, extra legroom and a beverage, while its bare-bones Economy fares are cheaper and include none of the above. Air Canada offers Tango, Flex and Latitude fares, each of which comes with different benefits (or lack thereof) such as waived change fees, priority check-in and standby privileges. (Worth noting: In all three of Air Canada’s fare classes you’ll have to pay for checked bags.)

How to Hack Your Way to a Cheaper Airfare

Naturally, JetBlue’s proposed changes are all about money; Bloomberg reports that the airline’s profits trail those of its competitors. I know airlines aren’t charities and they need to make a buck, but it’s still a bummer for those of us who appreciate companies that don’t try to nickel and dime us.

Will you still fly JetBlue if these changes go into effect?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airbus bicycle seatHere’s another cringe-worthy tale to file in your “what the … ?” folder: the Los Angeles Times reports that Airbus filed a patent last year for fold-down bicycle seats (similar to theater or stadium seats but shaped like those you’d find on a bicycle), which would prop passengers in a near-upright position, thereby increasing plane capacity.

The worst part is that they wouldn’t have the comforts of even the most standard airplane seats on other aircraft. The lack of tray tables means passengers would have one less thing to worry about during takeoff and landing, but what sort of safety issues would be created by the absence of proper backrests and headrests in the event of an emergency — or something as minor as turbulence?

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Diagrams show that the seats would be suspended on what appear to be large poles, placed horizontally in each row. That raises the question of where, exactly, fliers would store carry-on items that usually go underneath the seats in front of them. Although passenger capacity would increase with the use of these seats, it’s unlikely overhead bin space would do the same, thereby compounding the problem.

Airbus argues that passengers would be willing to endure the seats for several hours in exchange for cheap airfare costs, created by airlines’ ability to squeeze more passengers onto their planes. If the seats were, say, $20, perhaps we’d bite (depending on the length of the flight, of course), but it seems unlikely that adding a few additional paying customers to the mix would lower costs that significantly.

Face-to-Face Flights? New Seats Could Force Flier Interaction

The Los Angeles Times quotes an Airbus spokeswoman who says that “many, if not most, of these concepts will never be developed.” Here’s hoping this design stays in the realm of the imaginary.

Would you pay to sit on a bicycle seat for the duration of a flight? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

complaintsSpirit Airlines’ wacky new marketing campaign encourages you to hate on them. The ironic thing is that I never had an issue with Spirit until I tested out their Hate Thousand Miles campaign.

Log onto HateThousandMiles.com and you’re greeted by an assaulting yellow screen and an intimidating blonde woman hurling expletives into a cartoon cloud. The video is something you would see on a comedy site like Funny or Die — a man strums a guitar while the blonde woman explains the campaign and encourages one and all to hate on any airline of their choice. They then go on to share some laughable tweet-length complaints about Spirit in the “spirit” of fun and humility. All you have to do is complain, and you will receive 8,000 FREE SPIRIT frequent flier miles within 10 days. You start to think, “Hey, what’s the catch?”

I don’t have much experience with Spirit, but inspired by my recent carry-on conundrum I took the bait of a potentially free flight and vented about the now-uselessness of my carry-on in 140 characters. The first catch is the required fields — the very first of which takes your email, home address and phone number for a free account with Spirit. There’s already enough information about me floating in the Internet ether, so fair enough.

Now equipped with a member number, I submitted the grievance and was greeted by a few expected pages of terms and conditions. Spirit can modify or terminate the program at any time, flight cancellations won’t be credited, I can unsubscribe thusly, yadda yadda. I accepted my fate, still holding out hope for a flight to anywhere (okay, somewhere). Spirit congratulated me for getting my beef with an airline off my chest, and ensured that within 10 days I would receive an email with my miles.

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I started dreaming about all the places 8,000 miles could bring me from New Jersey. After much investigation I found a chart that explains which destinations I’d be eligible for. Standard flights are out to any region — those start at 10,000 miles. But an array of “off-peak” journeys in regions one through three (up to 24,999 physical miles) came in at 2,500, 5,000 and 7,500 FREE SPIRIT miles. Perfect!

Perfect until I realized I had no idea exactly what qualifies as “off-peak”… and still haven’t had any luck finding it (if you do, let me know). In theory, the nearby Philadelphia airport could whisk me to all but two locations on the chart during off-peak times. I headed back to the terms and conditions for any semblance of sense and I came across an unwelcome surprise: “For members redeeming Off-Peak awards, the Award Redemption Fee must be paid with a Spirit MasterCard.”

Wait, what redemption fee? I don’t even have a MasterCard.

“Members will need a credit card at time of booking and are responsible for paying any and all applicable taxes and fees (including, but not limited to: Customs, inspection, immigration, security, agriculture, facility and departure/arrival charges, any administrative fees and the September 11th U.S. Security Fee of up to $10 USD roundtrip).” Okay, I can handle $10, but how much is all that other stuff? I couldn’t pay it anyway because I don’t have the right card.

In the end, I giggled at the crude comments in the video, I submitted my complaint, I bought into the hype — but if your campaign is to be transparent about what your airline is offering customers, perhaps the same standard should also apply to your campaign.

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– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Remember being a kid and wearing those mood rings that changed color based on how you were feeling? British Airways is taking that concept to the next level with its new “happiness blanket,” which uses neurosensors and fiber optics to read and display a wearer’s mood.

CNN reports that the blanket, which is currently being tested in first class on select flights, turns blue when the wearer is relaxed and red if the wearer is tense. You can see it in action below:


Why does an airline need to know your mood? Per CNN, British Airways hopes that keeping track of fliers’ emotional states can help the airline optimize different aspects of the in-flight experience such as the brightness of the cabin lighting and the timing of meals. A laudable goal, but I’d argue that these aspects of a flight are the least of the airlines’ customer service issues these days. What about adding more legroom, cutting baggage fees or letting us change our tickets without paying a fortune?

Personally, I’m glad this is just a test for data collection; I’d rather not have my emotional state on display for all my fellow passengers to see. Here’s hoping that one of these days an airline comes out with a magical blanket that actually brings happiness instead of just measuring it — that would be something we could all smile about.

The IndependentTraveler.com Airport Scavenger Hunt
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– written by Sarah Schlichter

carry-on bagsIf you’ve ever been irked to see someone stride up to the gate at the airport with a massive carry-on and a second (or third … or fourth) bag that strains the definition of the term “personal item,” you’re not alone. A new hashtag called #CarryonShame is spreading on Twitter, calling out those fliers who seem to believe the entire overhead bin should belong to them.

The campaign is the brainchild of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Spud Hilton, who explains why he thinks it’s important in a post on the Bad Latitude blog: “If it were just passengers rationalizing their behavior as trying to cheat the airline out of checked baggage fees (or fliers just trying to save money), we wouldn’t care. But the increasingly aggressive disregard for the size standards — which has led to flight delays, a much longer boarding process, abusive passengers, and increased theft from gate-checked bags — also is disregard for everyone else on the plane.”

Hilton encourages travelers to snap photos of offending bags and tag their tweets with #CarryonShame; they may be retweeted by a dedicated Twitter account (@carryonshame) or even included in a gallery on SFGate.com.

What Not to Pack

Unfortunately, thanks to several airlines recently changing their carry-on size limits, it’s gotten a whole lot easier to go over the top — especially when, as Hilton points out, many suitcases marketed as carry-ons are actually too large: “We’ve started skulking around luggage and travel stores and have found that 40 percent of the bags labeled as carry-on that we measured did not meet standards for most airlines (45 linear inches, typically no more than 14 inches wide by 22 long by 9 deep).” Hilton urges travelers to post photos of these bags as well under the #CarryonShame hashtag.

Personally, I’ve got mixed feelings about #CarryonShame. On one hand, it drives me nuts when I have to gate-check my own carry-on because I’m in a late boarding group and there’s not enough overhead bin space. On the other, I prefer to travel solely with a carry-on — I don’t trust the airlines not to lose my luggage, and I hate waiting at baggage claim — so I bet I’ve exceeded the limit by a few inches here and there. My take: If I can fit my personal item under the seat in front of me and my carry-on in the bin wheels-first, it’s all good.

But I’d better look out for those #CarryonShame cameras, just in case.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

How do you feel about the oversized carry-on trend? Post your thoughts in the comments!

– written by Sarah Schlichter