For more than 50 years, Cuba has been a travel taboo for U.S. residents. Going there wasn’t technically prohibited — particularly if you were able to get special clearances as a journalist or Cuban expat, or if you traveled with an authorized tour operator — but spending money there was. Sure, there were ways around the restrictions, but this week we’ve gotten closer to the day when independent American travelers will no longer have to make sneaky pit stops in Mexico or Canada along the way.
Earlier this week, after Cuba and the U.S. came to an agreement that released prisoners on both ends and returned them to their home countries, the rules about spending money in Cuba were relaxed. Travelers will soon be able to use their credit and debit cards to make purchases on the island, and lovers of Cuban rum and cigars can rest easy knowing that won’t have to smuggle their Caribbean souvenirs back into the U.S. anymore (not that anyone has ever done that, of course).
Congress will discuss lifting further economic sanctions next year.
Cuba: Two Weeks to Remember
What does this mean for Cuba travel right now? Is it likely that you’ll be able to just pack your bags and book a trip on a whim without a U.S.-sanctioned reason? Not just yet. But anyone wishing to explore the country might find it easier to fit into one of the allowable categories (which include family visits, humanitarian projects, educational activities and “support for the Cuban people,” among others).
Are you interested in Cuba travel? Why or why not? Tell us in the comments below.
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– written by Ashley Kosciolek
I remember the days when free wireless Internet in a hotel lobby, let alone your own room, was a luxury. Now, the lack of available Wi-Fi in any corner of a country is a deterrent to visitors who are used to the privilege.
In Germany, for instance, the lack of free and available Wi-Fi to tourists is such a problem it has reached the priority list of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Skift reports. According to the story, “Europe’s largest economy offers just 1.9 wireless hotspots per 10,000 inhabitants, compared with 4.8 in the U.S., 29 in the U.K. and 37 in South Korea, according to a study by Eco, a German association representing 800 Internet companies.” These restrictions are due to laws that hold public Internet providers responsible for the illegal activities of customers using their connection. By loosening these restrictions, Germany hopes to not only improve user accessibility, but the economy, through digital initiatives aimed at helping German technology companies compete with the likes of Facebook and Google, according to the story. So do your part by purchasing a stein of beer and Bavarian pretzel; Instagram said beer and pretzel and voila! Instant added marketing.
Nearby, Italy has the same idea, according to Engadget, but its plan is not just to improve Wi-Fi, but to make it free to the public. A recent proposal from lawmakers intends to create thousands of new hotspots over a three-year period, costing $6.3 million. Not only would it improve connection speeds for residents, but the popular tourist destination is hoping that visitors may be more encouraged to connect and share their trip during their time in Italy. See designer merchandise; tweet about your shopping spree — you get the idea.
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Many countries already offer readily available Internet in tourist hot zones such as airports, cafes, museums, you name it. France, recently named the most visited country in the world in 2013 according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, offers more than 260 hotspots in Paris alone. Hong Kong is another top destination with its own free, public Wi-Fi service. Last year, CNN reported on Taiwan when it became one of the first countries to not only offer free Wi-Fi on a mass scale to citizens, but also to visitors. The government-backed iTaiwan is now accessible with just a passport as ID at any tourism counter. The same is true in Japan, according to Mashable. Armed with just a passport, travelers can register for free Wi-Fi cards at the airport, for use at roughly 45,000 hotspots in Eastern Japan.
It’s hard to say whether the lack of Wi-Fi would affect my decision to go somewhere — I think I’d go anyway (heck, I just spent a full week in Grenada without any reception at all, so I guess there’s your answer). But looking back at how lost I was merely crossing the border into Canada without cell reception and with no immediate access to Google Maps, TripAdvisor or Yelp to guide my way around Montreal, a little free Wi-Fi certainly goes a long way.
In an era when many are torn between traveling to “get away from it all” and documenting their travels live, or using Internet research to get around, where do you stand? Has Wi-Fi become a necessity, or is it still a luxury?
– written by Brittany Chrusciel
Too many users sharing the network, thick walls, incorrect settings — these may all be reasons you’ve concocted to explain your horrible Internet signal or poor cell phone reception during your latest hotel stay. But did the thought ever cross your mind that it was sabotage?
According to an article from CNN, the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, a Marriott property in Nashville, intentionally blocked guests from accessing their own personal Wi-Fi networks, forcing them to spend hundreds in order to use the hotel’s wireless Internet. Luckily the FCC got the signal loud and clear — and fined Marriott $600,000. The company will also have to file compliance plans with the commission every three months for the next three years. Federal law prohibits interference with cellular, GPS or wireless networks; according to the FCC, this is the first time a hotel property has been investigated for blocking guests’ Wi-Fi, but begs the question of whether other hotels aren’t guilty of the same practice.
In this case, Marriott employees used the hotel’s Wi-Fi system to block personal hot spots. The hotel chain maintains it did no wrong, stating, “We believe that the Opryland’s actions were lawful. We will continue to encourage the FCC to pursue a rulemaking in order to eliminate the ongoing confusion resulting from today’s action and to assess the merits of its underlying policy.”
Hidden Hotel Fees
Marriott claims that it was in fact protecting guests from “insidious” hot spots and potentially unsafe connections by blocking their ability to connect to them.
FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc stands by the ruling. “It is unacceptable for any hotel to intentionally disable personal hot spots while also charging consumers and small businesses high fees to use the hotel’s own Wi-Fi network,” he told CNN. “This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether.”
With so many hotels (especially convention centers) touting free Wi-Fi these days, I would probably not think anything of a poor connection, but would be suspicious of paying the equivalent of airfare just to log on.
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Do you think hotels should have the right to control Internet connectivity on their premises, or is it just another way to make a buck? If you have a shady hotel Wi-Fi story, share in the comments.
– written by Brittany Chrusciel
There are countless things I now rely on my phone for — directions, restaurant reviews, streaming music, a wake-up call — but booking a vacation is not one.
According to an episode of “The Street” found on USA Today, travel bookings on mobile devices are actually overtaking those made on desktop computers. Mollie Spilman, chief revenue officer for Criteo, an ad agency, spoke about statistics that show mobile bookings are up 20 percent in the first half of 2014 with no signs of slowing down.
In addition to the frequency of travel bookings made on mobile, the value per booking as well as the click-through rates are also higher on mobile devices than on desktop computers.
“It’s a smaller screen but the ads are more personalized,” Spilman said.
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The search history on your mobile device is more customized to your preferences because typically it is basing ads off of a single user rather than a desktop that may have multiple users, according to Spilman.
Over the weekend desktop activity drops even further, with tablets and smartphones taking its place. This is chalked up to desktop use being primarily used in the workplace, with mobile used more for browsing and recreation.
The segment stressed that mobile is changing consumer behavior and is expected to outgrow desktop in almost all markets, not just travel.
I’m not sure what it is — maybe the gravity of such a large spend, maybe the process of browsing multiple travel sites and booking engines — but despite being an avid mobile user, I still default to a desktop or laptop computer for booking flights, hotels, trips, you name it. Call me old-fashioned, but I just like the appeal of a large screen, a mouse and a chunky keyboard to hit “submit” on those momentous vacation plans to Timbuktu.
Tell us: Have you ever booked travel on a mobile device?
– written by Brittany Chrusciel
Two 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.
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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.”
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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
Time is down and work is up. Despite having relatively little paid vacation time, 77 percent of Americans have admitted to working while on vacation in the past year, according to a new TripAdvisor survey.
Out of the 10 countries — Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Spain, U.K. and U.S. — and 16,100 people polled, Americans receive an estimated 18 days of allotted vacation time, compared with an average of 24 days in other nations. The French top the list of allotted time with 31 vacation days per year — c’est la vie!
U.S. respondents — 76 percent of them — don’t feel that the amount of vacation time allotted is fair in comparison to what the rest of the world receives. Despite that majority, 91 percent of U.S. respondents have admitted to checking email while on vacation (and 37 percent don’t even consider it work, just routine); 85 percent respond to those emails; 45 percent check voice mail, and so on. This is because 65 percent of those respondents feel like there may be urgent work-related situations that will require their attention. Americans are also the most likely (18 percent) to feel guilty if they don’t work on vacation.
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An average of just 40 percent of respondents from the other countries polled cite working while on vacation, despite receiving more vacation time.
Close to a third of respondents say a rise in Internet connectivity makes them feel the need to check in with work more; 39 percent say this connectedness has led to a greater expectation from employers to check in with the office.
So would more vacation time actually equal more relaxation? Currently, 66 percent of U.S. respondents say their vacations leave them feeling recharged, and 39 percent say they are better able to handle work stresses after taking a vacation. For those seeking more vacation time, they’re willing to sacrifice up to $350 per additional vacation day; 21 percent responded they would take this pay reduction in return for more time off.
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Maybe the key to getting the most out of a vacation is to actually devote your full attention to being off, away and uninvolved with work (if you have the ability, which everyone should).
Have you ever worked during your “time off”? Why or why not?
–written by Brittany Chrusciel
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.
Any hotel that tries to stamp out negative reviews using strong-arm tactics is going to find itself more criticized than it ever thought possible. But are such tactics legal?
That’s what we wondered after reading about the Union Street Guest House in Hudson, New York, which only recently rescinded a policy by which it held back $500 of a wedding couple’s deposit for every negative review of the hotel posted by a wedding guest.
Christopher Cole, a partner at Crowell & Moring LLP says forbidding bad reviews can be legal so long as the policy is part of a contract the reviewer has agreed to beforehand
“Anybody can get you in a private contract to agree to keep quiet,” Cole told IndependentTraveler.com. “Somebody who had clear notice of this policy coming in and signed up for the wedding and paid their deposit and agreed to it – that’s the choice they make. I think a lot of people might not choose to do business with somebody like that if they saw the policy up front.”
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He compared such a policy to an employment termination agreement, in which an ex-employee is forbidden from saying anything bad about the company for a certain period of time.
Without such a contract, hotels cannot forbid guests from writing negative reviews.
“Opinion is protected by the First Amendment,” Cole said. “There’s a pretty forgiving standard for opinion, particularly for a business, which is typically entitled to a lower level of protection … You have more latitude to speak your mind.”
The difficulty of suing over opinion was made clear after a lawsuit leveled against TripAdvisor by the Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Tennessee was dismissed by a judge. The hotel had sued for defamation after it was given the top spot on TripAdvisor’s 2011 list of America’s dirtiest hotels. For a defamation suit to succeed Cole said, the plaintiff must prove “actual malice,” meaning TripAdvisor had known what they were publishing was false. “That is a very high standard,” Cole said, especially when opinion is at the heart of the matter.
Write a Trip Review
– written by Dori Saltzman
Author’s Disclaimer: IndependentTraveler.com is a subsidiary of TripAdvisor.
By 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.)
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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
Hotel rewards programs are great if you frequent the same chains on a regular basis, but the offerings and perks are pretty standard, as are the ways of accruing elite status. After a while, free Wi-Fi and extra nights all start to sound the same.
Apparently, that’s what the folks over at Kimpton thought too when they unveiled the chain’s new Kimpton Karma loyalty system. Replacing the brand’s former InTouch program, Kimpton Karma offers four tiers; you’ll be registered for Tier 1 by just signing up. You’ll reach Tier 2 with three stays or 10 nights (whichever comes first), Tier 3 with seven stays or 20 nights, and the Inner Circle with 14 stays or 40 nights.
The perks for everyone — even Tier 1 — include free Wi-Fi and a minibar credit, but the extras for higher tiers are pretty enticing: free nights, priority late check-out, dining offers and even direct access to Kimpton’s CEO when you reach the Inner Circle level.
7 Smart Reasons to Join a Hotel Rewards Program
The best part, however, is that you can get rewards in ways that go beyond just staying another night. In a statement about the new program, Kimpton says guests can get credit for things like mentioning their hotel on social media, booking directly through the chain’s website or even traveling with a pet. Sounds good to us!
What do you think? Do you belong to any hotel rewards programs? What do you like most about them, and what do you think can be done to jazz them up a bit? Leave your comments below.
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– written by Ashley Kosciolek
Here’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.
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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