For Americans, taking a trip to Cuba got a little easier on Tuesday, when the U.S. and Cuban governments agreed to reinstate commercial air travel between the two countries for the first time in more than a half-century. Yahoo! News reports that up to 110 daily flights will be permitted between the U.S. and 10 different airports in Cuba, with 20 of those going to Havana. Before this agreement Americans could only fly to Cuba from the U.S. aboard charter flights or by connecting in another country such as Canada or Mexico.
The new flights aren’t available just yet, but odds are that your favorite airline is interested in offering them. According to USA Today, most of the major U.S. airlines have expressed their intent to apply for flights to Cuba, including American, Delta, United, JetBlue and Spirit. Southwest and Alaska are considering putting in bids as well.
Per Yahoo! News, the airlines have about two weeks to submit their applications, and we should find out which flights will be available within about six months.
Americans should keep in mind that visits to Cuba for simple “touristic” purposes are still not permitted — so if you’re dreaming of wandering freely around Havana or lying on a beach in Varadero, tap the brakes. Even after commercial flights are in place, you’ll still need to verify that you are traveling to Cuba for one of the 12 purposes permitted by the U.S. government, including “educational activities” and “support for the Cuban people.” (You can find the full list at Can Americans Travel to Cuba? Yes — and Here’s How.)
For now, the easiest way to visit Cuba is still to travel with a group such as Intrepid Travel, smarTours, Insight Cuba or Cuba Explorer, all of which offer government-compliant itineraries and will arrange charter flights for you.
What travel news have you missed this week? Catch up with our list of the week’s best stories.
The Pyramids Few Tourists Have Ever Seen
Did you know that Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt? This photo essay from BBC Travel offers a fascinating glimpse at these ancient ruins, which receive only about 10 visitors a day.
A 16-Hour Dreamliner Flight with No Jet Lag? Believe It!
United is launching a new 16-hour route from San Francisco to Singapore aboard an aircraft that could revolutionize the way we feel after a long flight, reports Conde Nast Traveler. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner has more humidity than most planes and makes travelers feel like they’re flying at a slightly lower altitude than they would on a standard flight — both of which will help travelers feel less tired and dried-out when they touch down. It should all add up to less jet lag; here’s hoping!
Why 2016 Will Be a Terrible Year for Earning Frequent Flier Miles
Bad news for anyone who loves using their miles for free flights — later this year American will join Delta and United in awarding miles based on the fare you pay rather than the miles you fly, reports Skift. That means that most non-elite travelers and fliers who pay the lowest available fare will likely earn fewer miles. To add insult to injury, the price of award tickets is also going up.
Five Myths About Airline Food
USA Today separates fact from fiction when it comes to airline food. Is it true that all airplane meals are frozen and reheated later? Are they designed to make passengers sleepy? Are all the good meals saved for those in the front of the plane? The story answers these questions and more.
London Lost and Found
We loved reading this thoughtful essay from the New York Times on what it’s like to come back as a tourist to a place you once lived. The author vividly captures that complicated mix of familiarity and strangeness in a city you used to know well.
EasyJet Unveils Plan for “Hybrid” Planes Using Hydrogen Fuel Cells
CNN reports that easyJet (a European low-cost carrier) is trying out a new technology that could save 50,000 tons of fuel each year and reduce its airplanes’ carbon emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells could essentially turn the carrier’s planes into hybrid aircraft, allowing them to take off and land without using any fuel. It sounds promising — but even if it works, the technology is likely at least five years away.
Get your tissues ready for this week’s featured travel video, a heartwarming offering from British Airways.
Enterprising New Yorker Builds Igloo During Blizzard, Lists It on Airbnb
Via Metro.co.uk comes our favorite story of the week, about a resourceful Brooklynite who tried to use Winter Storm Jonas to make a buck. He built an igloo in his yard that he then listed on Airbnb for a whopping $200 a night, describing it as a “chic dome-style bungalow for you and bae.” (As appealing as it sounds, don’t waste time trying to book it — Airbnb has since removed the listing.)
Passport Expiring Soon? Renew It Now, State Dept. Says
The U.S. State Department is urging Americans whose passports will expire in the coming year to renew as soon as possible, reports the New York Times. A perfect storm of various factors could overwhelm the State Department later this year, so you’ll want to allow plenty of time if you’re up for renewal.
WWII Concentration Camp to Be Turned into a Luxury Resort in Montenegro
Okay, who thought this was a good idea? CNN reports that the uninhabited Adriatic island of Mamula, where a 19th-century fortress served as a concentration camp during WWII, will soon be turned into a luxury resort. While the developer overseeing the project promises that the history and architecture of the island will be respected, we can’t imagine many tourists are hankering to stay in a former concentration camp on vacation.
Don’t Mind the Wet Nose: TSA Enlists More Dogs to Screen Passengers
This entertaining story from the Washington Post takes a look behind the scenes at the lives of the TSA’s canine members, who use their sensitive noses to sniff out explosive materials at airports around the country. As one of their handlers describes it, the dogs are playing “the most fun game of hide-and-seek in the world.”
Read up on the latest from around the travel world with our weekly roundup.
10 Places It’s Cheaper to Fly to in 2016
If you’re dreaming of a trip to Hong Kong this year, you’re in luck — that city tops Kayak’s list of the top travel destinations for airfare savings in 2016, reports Time. It’s 26 percent cheaper to fly there this year than it was last year. Also on the list: Chicago, Beijing, Bangkok and Athens, among others.
The “Boring” Cities Worth a Second Look
Eric Weiner at BBC Travel argues that the cities we often think of as “boring” — such as Geneva, Switzerland and Cleveland, Ohio — actually have a lot to recommend them. You go in with no expectations, so you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised. And boring places have their own charm that flashier places don’t: “When you relinquish the spectacular, you are rewarded with the quieter joy of the ordinary,” writes Weiner.
Travel Broadens the Mind, But Can It Alter the Brain?
The Guardian looks at the benefits of studying or living abroad, which include being more creative, open-minded, independent and emotionally stable. The article also notes that coping with the challenges of travel keeps our minds sharp. (We always knew travelers were smarter…)
The Loophole That Could Save You Money on the Cost of a Flight
The U.K.’s Daily Mail has unearthed an interesting tip for saving money on airfare. If you’re planning to take internal flights within a foreign country, you’ll sometimes pay less if you purchase those flights while you’re in that country — or if you pretend to be from that country when you book.
Department of Transportation: Pilots Are Forgetting How to Fly Manually
Nervous fliers should probably give this article a miss. Popular Mechanics reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation is concerned that an over-reliance on automation has made modern-day pilots less proficient in manual flying — and more likely to make errors in situations that demand it.
Lufthansa Will Change How You Check Bags in 2016
For once, some good airline news! Conde Nast Traveler reports that Lufthansa will be introducing digital tags for checked bags this year, which will allow the airline to track the location of your suitcase and keep you notified via an app. In case of delays, you can tell the app where you want your bag delivered once it arrives.
Big Changes Coming for American’s Reward Program
Aaaaannd now we’re back to lousy airline news. The Dallas Morning News alerts AAdvantage members about coming changes to American Airlines’ rewards program, which include more limited dates for booking off-peak tickets, more miles required to book trips in some markets, and a new way of earning miles based on price paid instead of miles traveled.
For your visual eye candy of the week, we travel to Ireland with this dreamy, cinematic video:
Layaway programs seem like such a retro way to pay for something — I remember going with my mom to pick out new bedroom furniture at a discount department store in the 80s, then going back a few months later to pick them up.
Layaway all but disappeared as a shopping option in the early 1990s, then started making a small resurgence during our most recent economic downturn. Today, layaway programs are available from select travel companies: Sears Vacations, Disney and Gate 1 Travel all offer pay-in-pieces programs to help you budget for a vacation.
The latest layaway venture for travelers? A startup called Airfordable that allows you to pay for airplane tickets on an installment plan.
It works like this: You send a screenshot of a flight you want to book to Airfordable, along with a nonrefundable deposit of a third of the fare, and the company purchases the ticket for you. The team at Airfordable then sets you up with a payment plan. As long as you submit all your payments in full before your flight date, you’re good to fly.
“Airfordable’s layaway plans for air travel [reiterate] that memories are priceless and global enrichment is key in becoming a well-rounded person,” company founder Ama Marfo wrote on the Airfordable blog. Marfo shared the story of how she, as a college student, couldn’t travel home to Ghana during the holidays because she couldn’t afford the air ticket costs all at once. That’s what motivated her to start this venture.
Sounds like a nice option for those on a tight budget or those with high-interest credit cards who can’t pay off the cost of a ticket right away. But there are a few catches: Airfordable charges a 20 percent fee on top of the ticket price, and your desired flight cannot cost more than $2,000.
Here’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.)
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:
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?
BS: 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?
BS: 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.
IT: Do you tend to use airline miles more for free tickets or for upgrades?
BS: 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?
BS: 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?
BS: 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?
BS: 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?
BS: 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.
We’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?
Would 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.
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?
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 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?