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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

peace for parisHere’s another edition of our favorite travel stories of the week. (If you missed the first edition last week, you can check it out here.)

Fodor’s Stands with Paris
In this moving post, the editor-in-chief of Fodor’s explains why she isn’t planning to cancel her holiday trip to Paris next month, even after the recent terrorist attacks.

No More International Roaming Charges? Here’s How
Conde Nast Traveler offers good news for travelers who like to stay connected: Verizon is now allowing customers to pay between $2 and $10 per day to use their phones abroad the same way they do in the United States, without worrying about expensive roaming charges. (The article also includes suggestions for those who use different cell phone carriers.)

United Airlines Might Be the First Brand to Actually Drop a ‘Hidden’ Flying Fee
Here’s more welcome news on the fee front, this time from Travel + Leisure, which reports that United Airlines recently removed its rebooking fee. Passengers used to have to pay $50 to change their flight due to an unplanned event such as illness. Let’s hope more airlines follow suit.

Transparent Airplane Walls May Be in Air Travel’s Not-So-Distant Future
Fortune reports that Airbus is planning some revolutionary changes to the in-flight experience, including transparent airplane walls that will give new meaning to the phrase “window seat.” (If you’re afraid of heights, you’ll be able to use an opaque hologram to block the view.) Other potential changes: seats that adjust to your body size and themed “zones” where you can play games or interact with other passengers.

Starwood Devotees Greet Marriott Merger With Dread and Anger
Marriott International announced Monday that it will acquire Starwood Hotels & Resorts (which includes Sheraton, W, Le Meriden, Westin and several other chains). In this piece from the New York Times, frequent Starwood guests express their concerns about what will happen to their loyalty points and whether or not they’ll continue to enjoy the personalized service they’re used to after the merger.

Finally, have a laugh at this video of an Irishman on vacation in Las Vegas, who didn’t quite understand which way to point the GoPro camera he borrowed from his son. Instead of capturing the sights around town, he ended up filming his own face all over Sin City. Here’s the footage, spliced together (with a little musical embellishment) by his son Evan:

— written by Sarah Schlichter

ben schlappigBen Schlappig is a master of the miles.

Since giving up his apartment in April 2014 to spend all of his time traveling, Schlappig now flies around 400,000 miles a year, nearly all of it in first or business class. If that weren’t amazing enough, he only pays for a small fraction of his flights out of pocket. Instead, he relies on airline miles and credit card points.

How does Schlappig — a 25-year-old travel consultant and blogger who runs the website One Mile at a Time — do it? And can ordinary people like us capitalize on credit card points and miles, even if we can’t make such a task our full-time jobs?

We caught up with Schlappig via email while he was in flight between London and Los Angeles to ask.

IndependentTraveler.com: Must you be a frequent traveler to be able to take advantage of mileage or points programs?
Ben Schlappig:
Absolutely not! In the U.S. nowadays, more than half of miles are issued through non-flying means. Mileage programs have really gone from “frequent flier programs” to “frequent buyer programs,” as the possibilities for earnings miles are endless. You can earn miles through credit card spending, online shopping portals, car rentals and more.

IT: Is it better to spend credit card points on free airfare or free hotel stays?
The loyalty program landscape for both airlines and hotels has changed considerably, especially over the past couple of years. Ultimately there are pros and cons to both airline and hotel credit cards. Which type of card makes more sense for you depends on what you value most out of your travels.

What I recommend doing is accruing points in a “transferrable” points currency (such as American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou and Starwood Preferred Guest), which allows you to transfer points to either airline or hotel transfer partners. This way you have a lot more flexibility with your points.

IT: Most people hoard their points, saving them up for a special occasion. Why is that a bad strategy?
I have an “earn and burn” philosophy towards miles. That’s because miles devalue over time, as the number of miles needed for a given ticket creeps up. “Saving” miles long-term would be the equivalent of keeping cash in a checking account not accruing interest for decades on end. The best thing you can redeem your miles for is memorable travel experiences, and you’re generally best off doing that sooner rather than later.

Frequent Flier Miles: How to Use ‘Em, Not Lose ‘Em

IT: Do you tend to use airline miles more for free tickets or for upgrades?
In general I try to redeem my miles for award tickets in international first and business class. These are the awards that tend to have the most value to me, given that the tickets would be disproportionately expensive if paying cash.

For example, if you’re redeeming American miles for travel to Asia, a business-class ticket costs less than two times as much as an economy ticket. However, if you were to pay cash, that ticket could cost five to 10 times as much.

IT: How much you’ve spent on travel in a year? And what’s the estimated the value of your free travel?
Over half of my travel has been using miles and points. Given that many international first-class tickets retail for $25,000 or more roundtrip, I’d estimate the travel I’ve taken this year has probably retailed for somewhere around a million dollars. I spend a tiny, tiny fraction of that.

IT: What were some of your favorite destinations you’ve visited in 2015?
This has been a great year for travel for me, and I have a hard time picking just a few. I’d say Egypt, the Maldives and Austria rank up there.

IT: Where haven’t you been yet that you really want to visit?
I have a bit of an island obsession at the moment, as it’s not something I’ve focused much on previously. I’d love to visit Fiji, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Tahiti.

IT: The wanderlusters among us have been salivating recently at the exploits of frequent traveler Sam Huang, who scored a five-continent, first-class trip on Emirates Airlines for very little money by finding a (now-closed) loophole. Were you as jealous as we were?
Every couple of months there seems to be a story that goes viral about someone redeeming miles for an incredible international first-class experience. Rather than the loophole as such, what I ultimately take away from these situations is that the general public really has no sense of how easy it can be to redeem miles for some amazing products. Most people never get to experience these products because they assume they could never afford them. But with miles it’s much more feasible than they think.

7 Mistakes to Avoid When Booking a Flight

— interview conducted by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

boarding pass passportWe’re already used to destroying bank statements, tax forms and other sensitive documents when we need to get rid of them; now it turns out you should add your used airline boarding passes to that list.

KrebsOnSecurity, a computer security blog, recently reported that the bar and QR codes on your boarding pass can easily be decoded, revealing not only your name and itinerary but also your frequent flier number and any other information associated with it (such as your phone number or future flight bookings).

The blog points to this website as a free online resource for reading bar codes. Anyone who finds your boarding pass could snap an image of it, upload it to the site and access your information. He or she could theoretically make changes to your frequent flier account and even cancel your future flights.

How likely is this to happen if you accidentally drop your boarding pass into a recycling bin? It’s hard to say — but I’m not taking any chances. I’ll be shredding my boarding passes from now on. Will you?

11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling

— written by Sarah Schlichter

orion luggage adsWould you shelve your favorite piece of luggage and instead use a bag plastered with advertisements if it meant you didn’t have to pay airlines’ checked bag fees anymore?

It’s an intriguing idea, especially for families and frequent travelers who spend several hundreds of dollars a year merely to hand off their luggage before a flight. A former Continental Airlines flight attendant dreamed up this concept, in which you’re paid to use a piece of luggage that’s enveloped in an ad for the U.S. Army or an upcoming Hollywood blockbuster or another big brand.

“A family wants to travel to Disney World and it will cost them $250 in baggage fees, and that makes a dent in their budget,” creator Gary German told TODAY.com. “I want to alleviate that.”

Participants sign up on the website of German’s company, Orion Travel Tech of Celebration, Florida, which is waiving the $19.99 sign-up fee for the first 1 million people. Beginning in February, participants will receive two pieces of wheeled luggage in the mail — a 21-inch carry-on and an expandable, 25-inch checked bag. The bags are made of hard-back plastic, and each bag will have a non-removable advertisement molded directly into it.

Each time you travel and check the bag, Orion will deposit a roundtrip fee of $50 on a special gift card that can only be used to pay for checked luggage fees at your airport check-in counter.

7 Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

The brands advertising on the bags haven’t been announced yet, but Orion’s website is showing samples with logos from Verizon, General Motors — and how’s this for irony? — Southwest Airlines! German said participants will get to choose which ad is on their luggage.

“Most people have corporate logos on their luggage now and they’re not getting paid for it,” German said.

He’s got a point. People have had advertisements on their luggage for years. Remember the now-vintage luggage labels that travelers used to stick on their steamer trunks and suitcases to brag about where they’d been? Surprise — they were brilliant advertisements for hotels, ski resorts and tourism destinations.

Plus, ads are plastered all over airports as it is, so what are a few more?

Today.com reports that the suitcases will come with a few fun extras, including airport lounge access and a tampering alert system to warn you if someone breaks into your bag.

Weigh in: Would you carry advertising-covered luggage if it meant you didn’t have to pay checked bag fees?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Just last week, I greeted a new airplane cabin design from Airbus with cautious optimism. Sleeping boxes that might allow us long-suffering folks in cattle class to catch a few winks during a long flight? Yes, please.

But this week, we’re back to being appalled by the increasingly horrifying ways aircraft designers are trying to squeeze more humans onto each plane. Wired describes the latest design for which Airbus has filed for a patent as “a bit like blocks in a game of Tetris,” with seats stacked atop other seats. Take a look:

airbus cabin design

airbus cabin design

Airbus notes in its patent application that this design might be most appropriate for a business-class cabin because it allows passengers enough space to recline. Based on these diagrams, though, I have a hard time imagining paying economy-class fares to sit in this configuration, let alone front-of-the-plane rates. That said, this design might look a lot better if there were clear barriers or walls between different levels of seats, allowing fliers to feel like they have their own little contained area (and letting them forget that they’re stacked atop of other passengers like cans on a grocery store shelf).

Also worth asking: How safe is such a configuration? Could the cabin be evacuated efficiently if passengers have to climb down ladders, and would there be increased chance of injury during heavy turbulence?

7 Mistakes to Avoid When Booking a Flight

Of course, the same disclaimer we gave last week applies: Airbus and other companies apply for numerous patents, and an idea in this stage may never come to fruition.

You can read the full patent application here.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

For fliers who love to travel to exotic places but hate being stuck in a cramped coach-class seat for 10 or 12 or 16 hours at a time, an end just might be in sight. The Singapore-based Straits Times reports that Airbus has applied for a U.S. patent for a design involving “sleeping boxes” on long flights.

The boxes would be stacked in the rear of the plane, padded in case of turbulence and furnished with pillows, a reading light, a TV and an air conditioning vent. Check out the video below to get an idea of what they’d look like:

Passengers could remain in the boxes during take-off and landing, though they’d have to be strapped in. If you wanted a seat as well, you’d need to purchase it at extra cost. (The Strait Times suggests that a couple could purchase one seat and one box, and switch places as desired.)

It’s important to remember that this idea is still in the patent stage and might never make it onto an actual plane. An Airbus spokesperson told CNN, “Airbus applies for hundreds of patents every year in order to protect intellectual property. These patents are often based on R&D concepts and ideas in a very nascent stage of conceptualization, and not every patent progresses to becoming a fully realized technology or product.” In other words: Don’t hold your breath.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Would you book a spot in a sleeping box if the cost were reasonable?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

passport driver's licenseStarting next year, travelers from certain U.S. states may no longer be able to use their driver’s licenses to get through security checkpoints at the airport.

Time reports that the four states in question include New York, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Louisiana (as well as American Samoa), which currently issue driver’s licenses that do not meet the security requirements of the Real ID Act. This act was passed by Congress in 2005 in response to a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission; it sets minimum security standards for driver’s licenses and other identification cards.

Although implementation of parts of the act began last year, it will not affect air travelers until “no sooner than 2016,” says the Department of Homeland Security website; this is when the new standards will apply to travelers boarding any federally regulated commercial plane.

So what does this mean for you? If you’re a resident of one of the affected states, you’ll need to bring a passport or passport card to use as identification in order to board a domestic flight. For international flights, all U.S. citizens must continue to show their passports as usual.

How to Get a U.S. Passport
10 Things Not to Wear When Traveling Abroad

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Like many travelers these days, I prefer to pack light and fly with nothing but a carry-on. I hate the lines for checking luggage, waiting in crowds at baggage carousels and hoping against hope that my checked bag didn’t get lost in transit. Airlines, though, keep adjusting allowable carry-on sizes, and some, like Frontier and Spirit, charge you for a carry-on that must be stowed in the overhead bin.

So naturally, I was intrigued by the CarryOn Free bag, which is designed to be a suitcase that fits underneath your seat — even on Spirit — which makes it a “personal item” and is, thus, free to travel with. The bag retails for $69.99. I gave it a whirl for a three-day getaway to Vegas and a two-day trip to New York City. Read on to learn how it fared — and find out how to win one for yourself.

carryon free

The Good
It fits! The bag’s design is unique. It’s a true rolling suitcase with a telescopic handle, but it’s compact, and the top is narrower than the base so it can be slid under a seat. And at 16 inches tall, 14 inches wide and 12 inches deep, it really does fit. We tried it on a United flight and found that it didn’t require any fancy maneuvering.

It’s sturdy: This is not a flimsy suitcase that feels cheap. The polyester fabric is thick and doesn’t stain easily. The handle, which extends to 40 inches, isn’t shaky, as we’ve seen with some suitcases. The zippers operate smoothly, and the fabric inside seems durable. We gave this case a workout, dragging it through the streets of Manhattan, over sewer grates and through packed sidewalks, and it rolled smoothly. The handle also pulls up (and pushes down) quickly and easily, for when you need to transition between pulling and carrying. My 6-foot-4 husband liked the length of the handle and didn’t have to stoop to use it.

There’s lots of room: Despite its compact size, this case can fit a lot. I was easily able to pack for our trip to Vegas in this case alone, and I included three pairs of shoes in addition to day clothing, nightwear, fitness clothing and pool garb. My trip to New York was a business trip, and I had plenty of room for several pairs of shoes, business attire and even my laptop and tablet.

carryon free

The Bad
No legroom: The problem with putting the CarryOn Free bag under your seat is that you sacrifice legroom — which is especially troublesome if you’re tall or traveling in economy class. The suitcase takes up the entire space beneath the seat, so you can ‘t stretch out at all. This can get fairly uncomfortable on longer flights.

Digging around: While there’s enough space in the bag for a long weekend’s worth of packing, it’s because the suitcase is so deep. If you don’t like to unpack, you’ll be digging around in the suitcase all the time to find what you’re looking for, which inevitably is at the bottom of the case. An inside pocket on the lid is sufficient for holding small items like toiletries, but the deep bag itself lacks dividers (though two straps at the bottom can help prevent items from shifting).

In-flight access: Once this case goes under the seat, it’s there to stay, so don’t plan to pack anything into it that you might need to access mid-flight. When it’s packed, it can be heavy and difficult to maneuver from under the seat without jostling your seatmates.

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

Want to give it a try? You can win our gently used suitcase! Just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, September 23, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the suitcase. This giveaway is open only to residents of the lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest is closed. The winner of the bag is Lisa Dudding. Congratulations!

— written by Colleen McDaniel

I’ve taken many a trip, been on many a flight, and maybe because I’ve been (knock, knock) lucky about not having my luggage lost, I’ve never contemplated what happens to my suitcase after I drop it at the luggage counter. Without much imagination, I always assumed baggage handlers industriously gathered the checked luggage onto carts and wheeled them out to some kind of freight elevator where they journeyed to the tarmac below and were then loaded by another industrious group of baggage handlers onto the plane.

What Do I Do if My Luggage is Lost?

Little did I know, while I’m thumbing through magazines and finding the nearest Jamba Juice before settling in to await the boarding process, my luggage is having the ride of its life — at least it would in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, where a first-person (bag) video has recently been released, chronicling a checked bag’s journey through an intricate series of conveyor belts and robotic platforms. Seriously, if this thing were designed for humans, it would be the hottest new theme park attraction.

We found the video on Time.com, but if you browse the airport’s website, you can find a version that allows you to scroll for 360-degree views.

What other inside view of travel would you like to see a video of? Share with us in the comments.

Four High-Tech Luggage Tags and Apps That Will Save Your Trip

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

cabin crew flight attendant pilot planeThere are several areas on planes where access is restricted to crew only. The cockpit is one; baggage storage areas are another. But many passengers — even frequent fliers — don’t realize there are also bunk areas where cabin crew sleep during long-haul flights.

Thanks to an article from Business Insider, we’ve gotten a small glimpse of what these areas look like (although we’re pretty sure they’re smaller than they appear and don’t lend themselves to having, as one commenter put it, “a pre-teen slumber party”).

What’s neat about them is how they’re accessed. Often reached via a secret door near the cockpit and a tiny set of winding stairs, most of these areas can sleep anywhere from six to 10 crewmembers via bunks or side-by-side mattresses divided by curtains or other partitions. Some airlines also offer pajamas.

Even cooler: On certain plane models, these areas have emergency exits that feed into the main passenger cabins through what appear to be normal overhead bins.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Did you know these areas existed? What are some of your favorite travel secrets? Be sure to share in the comments below.

— written by Ashley Kosciolek