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airplane seatsWhether we acknowledge it or not, most of us have rituals when we fly. Some people pack their carry-ons the same way each time, while others know exactly where to buy that perfect airport breakfast sandwich — and how much time they’ll need to get it before boarding.

My own rituals center around one goal: scoring an exit row aisle seat every time (preferably without paying some sort of extra fee). When I’m sitting in “my seat” — 9C or 9D, depending on the airline and type of plane — all is well in my world. Any annoyances incurred before this point fall away and I’m ready for wheels up.

My husband has an even stronger attachment to the exit aisles. At 6-foot-5, he feels that the extra legroom isn’t a comfort; it’s a necessity — and he too will do everything he can to make sure it’s his. Being an elite flier helps, but he’s not above asking the gate agent to take pity on him to avoid an extra charge (usually after one look at his tall frame, they are happy to oblige).

Exit rows aren’t the only desirable seats, of course. My sister doesn’t care if she’s in an aisle or window, as long as she’s near the front of the plane when it lands (a cross-country flight stuck in what’s generally regarded as the worst seat on the plane — the non-reclining row in front of the bathroom — scarred her for life). And some editors here at Independent Traveler insist on a window seat so they can get the first glimpse of their destination upon arriving.

How to Get the Best Airplane Seat

How do you find “your” seat if you aren’t a frequent flier? I’m a big fan of SeatGuru.com (owned by our parent company, TripAdvisor), which shows you exactly which seats on a particular airline or plane are considered “best.” It’s an essential resource, particularly if you’re flying long-haul on an airline that’s unfamiliar to you.

At the risk of sounding obvious, it’s also important to choose your seat when you book. Not all airlines require you to do this, so it’s important to take your time during booking and not rush the process. Don’t forget to enter your frequent flier number, even if you’re a long way from elite! Loyalty can get you noticed.

But if you’re stuck in a bad seat at booking, don’t despair. You still have several chances to change your luck. The first one comes when you check in online; be one of the first (most flights open for check-in 24 hours in advance) and you might grab a prime location that hasn’t been snatched up by an elite.

Finally, when you’re at the airport, you can ask for changes in two different spots: at the counter when you check in and at the gate. Remember to stay polite and respectful with your requests; good manners go a long way these days.

Surviving the Middle Seat

Once you’re on the plane, you can still make your experience better, even if your seat isn’t the best. While few flight attendants have the power to upgrade you, they can make your life a little easier — and I’ve received free drinks just for being understanding and amenable.

– written by Chris Gray Faust

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns SeatGuru.com.

airport baggage claimYou’re a lucky traveler if you’ve never experienced an air travel glitch. Whether you’ve been bumped from an overbooked flight, had a bag lost or experienced a delay, airline hiccups are a fact of life. A lesser-known fact, however, is that the law might entitle you to compensation if your flight doesn’t go as planned — and we don’t mean just in the form of a better seat or a credit for a future booking. But the airlines’ convoluted policies make it intimidating for most travelers to pursue claims.

Cue AirHelp. Popular in Europe, the company officially brought its services to the U.S. market earlier this month, helping displaced air travelers to seek retribution. As we note in our story on bumping and overbooking, you could be eligible for a refund of up to $1,300 if you’re bumped from an overbooked flight. But who has time to research, file and follow up on claims?

AirHelp does. While we haven’t gone through the entire claim reporting process, it seems easy enough. The initial five-step system asks you to 1) choose whether you were delayed, canceled or bumped; 2) list your departure and arrival cities; 3) tell AirHelp whether your flight was direct or had connections; 4) enter the flight number and the date of the flight; and 5) provide information like your name, email address, reservation number, total time of delay and reason given by the airline.

Airport Delays: 6 Ways to Cope

After you submit your claim, AirHelp will determine whether you’re entitled to some sort of refund and, if so, follow up with the airline on your behalf (for which you give your permission by signing a power of attorney document).

The upside? If you’re not paid, you owe nothing for AirHelp’s services. If they score you some cash, they keep 25 percent. It seems like a lot at first, but without AirHelp’s assistance, it’s unlikely you’d be seeing anything at all.

The downside? If the service catches on, there’s no telling whether already struggling airlines might reflect their losses in the form of higher ticket prices. (AirHelp claims that 98 percent of eligible passengers don’t currently apply for compensation.)

What are your thoughts? Would you try AirHelp?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

hotel front deskA San Francisco-based frequent flier is fed up with reclining passengers and, quite frankly, so am I. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been unable to use my laptop or read a book without having to hold it up to my face because the person in front of me had pushed his or her seat back as far as it would go.

But although an October 2013 poll by flight search website Skyscanner found that just under 50 percent of fliers would like reclining seats to be removed from all airlines, IndependentTraveler.com readers are not so inclined.

The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room

In fact, when we recently asked our Facebook followers their thoughts on the subject, the majority of respondents reported that they always recline their seats, though most said they do so as politely as they can.

Wynne Gavin wrote, “I have a bad back and need to be slightly reclined. Since I am cognizant of the person behind me, I do so very slowly, carefully and just enough to be comfortable. I’ve never had it fully reclined.”

Ron Buckles and Trisha Hynes agreed. Recline slowly and just enough to be comfortable.

Clyde Roberts said he always reclines on long flights “for a while,” but never during refreshment service — and he eyes the person behind him first. “I check to see if the traveler behind me has reclined and if so I think he/she must be ok with me doing the same.”

And Randi Weiner said that although she understands there are issues with reclining seats “in this day and age when airlines are building planes with more and more seats jammed together,” she believes that if she paid for the seat and it has the ability to recline, then she will do so.

But even reclining passengers have had issues with other recliners.

“On a flight to JFK from Europe, the girl in [front] of me did a fast, full recline and I screamed, ‘Ouch!!’ when the [seat] hit my body,” Wynne Gavin wrote. “I simply pushed the seat forward a bit so I had some more room. She said, ‘I want to be comfortable.’ I said, ‘So do I.’ She had no choice but to compromise, as each time she reclined fully, I simply pushed it back up.”

10 Annoying Habits of Our Fellow Travelers

But Gavin added she does not think banning reclined seats is the answer. “Airlines removing a few rows and creating more space is.”

Since that won’t be happening any time soon, I’d like the airlines to take a look at Sue Armstrong’s response.

“How about a reclining section on the plane — spaced to accommodate it and part of seat selection and priced accordingly.”

What’s your preference — to recline or not to recline?

– written by Dori Saltzman

airport plane woman gate suitcase United Airlines generated a collective groan from travelers over the weekend by saying it will be strictly enforcing its carry-on baggage requirements, which limit each passenger to one personal item (like a purse, laptop or briefcase) and one carry-on bag with a maximum size of 9 x 14 x 22 inches.

The issue, however, isn’t with the size of the carry-on luggage allowed; other major carriers, including Delta and American Airlines/US Airways, have the same dimension restrictions. Instead, what’s upsetting is that United will now be charging checked-bag fees for any carry-ons that must be gate-checked due to noncompliance — even if passengers have used their carry-ons for years with no trouble fitting them in the overhead bins.

Of course it’s annoying when you see fellow flyers waddling onboard under the weight of a purse, a backpack, a computer bag and a carry-on that you can just tell exceeds regulation. But instead of making the boarding more efficient, charging for gate-checked bags is certain to slow down the process.

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

United also charges for the first checked bag for each passenger, so it’s understandable that many would attempt to bring slightly larger carry-ons to avoid baggage fees. (Meanwhile, two popular U.S.-based airlines — JetBlue and Southwest Airlines — allow each passenger to check at least one checked bag at no charge. To boot, the carry-on dimensions for both lines exceed those of United and the other major carriers at 10 x 16 x 24 inches.)

Ultimately, United’s decision to charge for the gate-checking of carry-ons reminds us quite a bit of the policy of ultra-discounter Spirit Airlines: one personal item can be brought for free, but passengers are charged as much as $100 per bag — each way! — for the privilege of boarding with a carry-on that won’t fit under the seat in front of them.

At this point, it wouldn’t surprise us one bit if United eventually starts charging for things like bathroom privileges (don’t laugh — this was proposed a few years ago by European discounter Ryanair) and oxygen.

4 Signs You Have a Packing Problem

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

cartoon man in pillory I’m fed up. Sick of it. And I haven’t even experienced the worst of it. But I’ve had enough of self-important air travelers believing they’re above the rules and then becoming incensed and unruly when a flight attendant, or worse yet, another passenger, points out they are in the wrong.

In the latest incident of “unruly” airplane behavior, an American Airlines flight actually had to make an unscheduled stop to boot a guy off the plane. While the airline did not give specific details about the man’s behavior, Fox News reports he refused to listen to the crew’s instructions and had to be handed over to authorities in Canada.

Flying is frustrating enough without our fellow passengers making things worse for us. And yet, such incidents are becoming more commonplace. While Alec Baldwin famously refused to turn off a game of Words with Friends on his cell phone, he’s far from alone in such disruptive behavior. More recently, the niece of fashion designer Ralph Lauren was kicked off a plane after she had too much to drink and began threatening and verbally abusing the crew.

The Real Reason Fliers Hate the Airlines

According to CBS News, the reports of passenger misconduct skyrocketed from 500 in 2007 to more than 6,000 in 2011 on international flights. And while I don’t hold the airlines completely blameless for the frustrations that often drive these angry passengers to lash out, I do believe it’s time to do something about such behavior.

In March 2014, CBS reports, the International Air Transport Association will propose changes to global laws against unruly passengers to bring them more in line with the stricter laws that apply to domestic flights. (In the U.S., passengers are subject to fines and even jail time for acting out in the air.)

In the meantime, I believe it’s time to bring back the pillory as a form of punishment. I propose every plane be outfitted with an onboard pillory. Passengers who carry on too much luggage, refuse to turn off their cell phones, yell at flight attendants or in any other way disrupt the travel of the majority of people on the plane should be placed in the pillory and forced to stand in front of everyone until it’s time for the plane to land.

But, because I’m a nice person and don’t want anyone to suffer unnecessarily, unruly passengers should have the option of getting out of the pillory by instead personally apologizing to everyone else on the plane for their bad behavior.

The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room

Have you been on a plane disrupted by an angry passenger? How would you like to see unruly passengers punished?

– written by Dori Saltzman

google glass virgin atlanticThe travel industry doesn’t tend to win many kudos for its customer service (see our Airlines Behaving Badly series for evidence), but one airline is hoping to change that through the introduction of cutting-edge technology.

Virgin Atlantic announced yesterday that staff members in its Upper Class Wing at London‘s Heathrow Airport will be using Google Glass — a wearable mini-computer that’s not yet broadly available to the public — to check in passengers and perform other personalized customer service tasks. This includes things like giving flight status updates, translating information in foreign languages and providing a weather forecast for the passenger’s destination.

For now, Virgin Atlantic’s economy-class passengers are out of luck; the pilot test of this program affects only those in the Upper Class cabin. The test will go on for six weeks, with the possibility of expansion in the future. Eventually the technology could also be used to identify passengers’ inflight preferences (such as special dietary needs or preferred drinks).

Does Your Flight Attendant Hate You?

Would you find it appealing to be greeted with such personalized service at the airport? Let us know in the comments below.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

tripadvisor flightsWhat’s most important to you when booking a flight — price? Schedule? Number of connections? Legroom? The in-flight experience? For many travelers, the answer is “all of those things.” And airfare booking sites are responding.

Today TripAdvisor introduced a new version of its flight search engine that includes information such as legroom ratings (tight, average or spacious), whether seats with extra space are available for purchase, the cost of a first checked bag, and whether your seat has a personal TV screen and/or power outlet.

The default search results are sorted by lowest price, but you can also choose to show only nonstop options, to “avoid early flights” (before 8 a.m.) or to see the flights offering the “best value.” It’s not immediately clear what qualifies a flight for “best value” status. In one search, the site gave me a happy medium between an expensive nonstop flight and a cheaper but less convenient option with two layovers. In another, it suggested a nonstop flight that cost about $300 more than the cheapest, multi-leg flight (about a 25 percent increase in price).

9 Ways to Make Travel Less Stressful

These offerings are similar to those on other sites like Routehappy.com — which assigns flights a Happiness Score based on entertainment options, seat configuration, trip length and other factors — and Hipmunk.com, whose Agony Index sorts flights by a combination of price, length and number of layovers.

What’s cool about TripAdvisor’s flight search is that it has user photos so you can catch a glimpse of what your plane will look like. The site also pulls in seating charts and ratings from sister site SeatGuru.

For most of us, flying will never really be fun — but now at least we’ve got one more option to help us save money and make that in-flight experience just a little bit brighter.

How to Hack Your Way to a Cheaper Airfare

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns SeatGuru.com.

We’ve seen some fun in-flight safety videos in our day, guest starring such notables as Betty White, Richard Simmons, a bunch of hobbits and even a dancing nun. But for this Gen X’er, Delta’s newest air safety video, like, totally takes the cake.

It’s got women in side ponytails with neon nail polish and lace gloves, and men with mullets or more hair than Crystal Gayle. There’s even an Atari game console, a Teddy Ruxpin doll and a man inchworminghis way down the aisle. All of it, plus way more(!), had this 80s gal laughing and, more importantly, paying attention.

My favorite moment? The guy trying to fix his cassette tape with his pinky.

So grab the keys to your time traveling DeLorean and take a peek below as heavy metal rockers, Valley girls, Alf and a special guest pilot take you through the ABCs of airline safety.



More In-Flight Fun:
Betty White Stars in Latest Air New Zealand Safety Video
FAA: Harlem Shake in the Sky Might Not Fly

– written by Dori Saltzman

A few months ago, Virgin America jazzed up its in-flight safety presentation with an up-tempo music video featuring a young, limber cast of flight attendants, businesspeople and even a nun(!) singing and dancing their way around a virtual aircraft cabin. But one Virgin America flight attendant thought that just wasn’t quite entertaining enough — and added a live performance to go along with the video on a recent flight.

Below you can watch the flight attendant strutting down the aisle, lip-synching to the lyrics of the song and generally getting his groove on, much to the amusement of his passengers. Check it out:


Props to this flight attendant for pretty much guaranteeing that his passengers will pay attention to the safety demonstration!

More In-Flight Fun:
Betty White Stars in Latest Air New Zealand Safety Video
FAA: Harlem Shake in the Sky Might Not Fly

– written by Sarah Schlichter

2013 2014 beach new yearBefore we jump head first into 2014, we’re taking one last look back at the year that was. Of all the travel tips and trends we covered in 2013, there were a few that got our readers ranting, raving or simply laughing. Read on as we count down our 10 most popular blog posts of the past year.

10. Air New Zealand did it again. The airline known for its creative and hilarious in-flight safety videos came out with another winner in November, this time featuring the inimitable Betty White.

9. We reviewed and gave away dozens of travel products in 2013, but the biggest hit was the ultra-innovative Suitcase That Beats Bed Bugs.

8. When an Asiana Airlines plane crashed at San Francisco Airport in July, it spurred us to wonder: Where Are the Safest Seats on a Plane?

7. It isn’t often that we can bring readers good news from the travel industry, so when T-Mobile Eliminated Roaming Fees for Cell Phone Users Abroad, we and our fellow travelers rejoiced.

6. Few things get travelers more riled up than the topic of kids on planes. This year saw several Asian airlines introduce child-free zones on some of their flights — and while many of our readers were supportive of keeping kids as far away as possible, one parent took a different tack in her controversial Open Letter to People Who Hate Flying with Kids.

5. Turns out that even a so-called “travel expert” makes the occasional packing blunder. See what happens When a Travel Writer Ignores Her Own Advice.

4. A guest contributor from a currency exchange service shared his best practical tips in Buying Foreign Currency: Get More Bang for Your Buck.

3. Our post on 5 Signs You’re Not a True Traveler stirred up some strong emotions in the comments section. Reader Christy said our list was “spot on,” while Clare accused us of “imposing [a] very restrictive idea of what an experience must be.” What’s your take?

2. On a long, boring flight, leafing through the SkyMall catalog is always entertaining. Readers got a good laugh from our list of 9 Useless Items You Can Buy at 35,000 Feet, ranging from a mounted squirrel head to a porch potty for dogs.

1. Catching Zs while crammed into a tiny airplane seat is always a struggle. Could the perfect travel pillow help the cause? We reviewed four of them in Travel Pillow Challenge: The Quest for Good Airplane Sleep.

The Weirdest Travel News of 2013

– written by Sarah Schlichter