Explore. Experience. Engage.

Home Travel Tips Travel Deals Destinations Trip Reviews Blog
The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Here’s another edition of our weekly travel news round-up, keeping travelers informed, inspired and entertained.

airplane water sunsetHow to Fly Free Forever: Charge $170 Million on Your AmEx Card
A Chinese billionaire recently charged the purchase of a $170 million painting to his American Express card, racking up enough reward points to fly in first class for free for the rest of his life. USA Today estimates that he could fly in a first-class suite with Singapore Airlines some 3,000 times between Europe and the United States. (Wonder if he’d be interested in donating a few of those points to those of us with smaller credit card limits?!)

The First Debit Card for U.S. Travelers to Cuba Is Now Available
Speaking of spending money, it’s just gotten a little bit easier for American travelers headed to Cuba. Skift reports that a Florida bank is offering a debit card for Americans to use for hotel stays, restaurant meals and other purchases in Cuba. The card will not yet work at the island’s ATMs, though this may change next year.

Clever Tricks That Fix Common Packing Problems
This fun slideshow from Frommer’s offers nine ingenious packing hacks — from hiding extra cash in an empty deodorant tube to using straws to keep your necklaces from tangling — complete with GIFs that show you how to execute each one.

7 Keys to Traveling Without Fear Despite Terrorist Attacks
Wendy Perrin offers wise, practical advice to those feeling understandably jittery about traveling in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali. She explains why terrorism is so frightening but points out just how unlikely each of us is to be caught in this type of scenario as compared to other travel risks (such as car accidents).

Finding VIP Travel Experiences: A Q&A with Wendy Perrin

As a reminder of the world’s beauty, we’ll wrap up this week’s travel round-up with an exquisite travel video from Bhutan, featuring golden Buddhas, fluttering prayer flags and friendly local faces creased with smiles.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

us passport visa pagesYou’ve seen them in the security line in front of you: globetrotters with passports so thick that they have to use thick rubber bands to keep them closed.

Soon, this will be a thing of the past.

Frequent travelers who run out of visa pages in their U.S. passports will no longer be able to order extra pages beginning January 1, the U.S. State Department announced last week. In 2016, if you run out of pages, you will need to order a new passport.

Previously, if you filled your passport with visas and entry and exit stamps, you could order an insert of 24 additional pages. The State Department is eliminating this option “for security reasons and to conform better with international passport standards,” according to a statement.

The standard U.S. passport contains 28 pages, 17 of which are reserved for visa entry and exit stamps. In 2014, the State Department began issuing 52-page passports (with 43 visa stamp pages) for no additional fee. (Renewing a passport through the State Department is currently $110.) Choosing a 52-page passport at the time of application or renewal is now the smartest option for frequent travelers.

The State Department will still issue the 24-page inserts through the end of the year and will still honor them at airports — so now is the time to order one if you need one. The cost is $82.

Routine passport processing via mail currently takes four to five weeks, according to the State Department. Expedited processing through the State Department takes two to three weeks.

10 Things Not to Wear When Traveling Abroad

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

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

travel newsWe spend all day, every day reading travel stories from around the globe — and to keep you from having to do that too, we’ve rounded up our favorite articles of the week (as well as one hilarious video!). Have a read and learn something new.

Living and Dying on Airbnb
We’re big fans of Airbnb (see 5 Reasons Airbnb Is Better Than a Hotel), but this powerful piece — written by a man whose father died at a Texas Airbnb property — illustrates the darker side of staying in unregulated vacation rentals rather than hotels, which are continually inspected for safety.

When Did People Start Moving Fast Enough to Experience Jet Lag?
If you’ve ever wondered who first coined the term “jet lag,” you’ll find the answer in this entertaining article, which traces the history of this all-too-common travel malady. Alas, there’s still no cure, though we have our own tips for coping with jet lag.

Philadelphia Selected as World Heritage City
The City of Brotherly Love is the first U.S. metropolis to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage City, recognized for its impact on history — particularly at Independence Hall, the place where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were signed. Philadelphia joins other World Heritage Cities such as Florence, Edinburgh, Quebec City and George Town, Malaysia.

Swim Team Makes Awesome Video During 7-Hour Airport Delay
We loved this video featuring members of the University of Louisville swim team, who found a way to entertain themselves during a lengthy flight delay in Raleigh-Durham. We’ll have to try some of these tricks the next time we’re on a people mover!

4 Funny Vintage Airline Commercials

— 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

world odyssey semester at seaOn September 13, Semester at Sea unveiled its sixth ship, the World Odyssey. Since the inception of the program in 1963, Semester at Sea has offered a unique “university afloat” program for college students and lifelong learners. The debut of the World Odyssey — a new breed of ship for the program — will include a more traditional and upscale cruise setting within its hull. Onboard public spaces include a pool, fitness center, library and outdoor dining area.

Semester at Sea is not about a single ship; it is about a voyage around the world — and a voyage of profound personal and global discovery. As a past participant, I carry with me a deep respect for foreign culture and an understanding of how language, history and sustainable living impact our lives on a global scale. Notable past SAS participants who have gone on to create globally minded enterprises include Jessica Jackley, co-founder and board member of Kiva; Po Chung, co-founder of DHL International; and Adam Braun, founder and executive director of Pencils of Promise.

9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

The Semester at Sea program caters to college-age students but also offers a lifelong learning program for past participants or travelers interested in an academic and cultural experience that is as deep as it is wide. The ship sails approximately 100-day itineraries departing in the fall and spring each year, visiting up to a dozen countries on each voyage. In the past, participants have enjoyed one-of-a-kind opportunities to meet key public figures such as Mother Theresa, Fidel Castro in Cuba and Desmond Tutu.

Would you consider a trip with Semester at Sea?

— written by Vicki Flores

The accidental discovery of a Stonehenge “on steroids” just two miles from the famed stone monument in England has archeology fans wondering when they’ll get to see the new site. Sadly, it won’t likely be anytime soon.

Using radar and other scanning technologies, researchers from the Stonehedge Hidden Landscapes Project announced on Monday that they practically tripped over a “superhenge” less than two miles from the more famous set of rocks. With nearly 100 buried but standing stones measuring up to about 15 feet tall, the site at Durrington Walls is one of the largest such sites ever discovered and is at least five times larger than Stonehenge, reports the BBC.

You can get an idea of what the site may have originally looked like by watching the video below.

“We don’t think there’s anything quite like this anywhere else in the world. This is completely new, and the scale is extraordinary,” said project co-leader Vince Gaffney, adding that the discovery is “archeology on steroids.”

What’s to be done with the site — which is more than 1,600 feet in diameter and is less than a two-hour drive from London — remains to be seen. The Guardian reports that researchers will continue to conduct analysis and consider proposals. They’ll need to take costs into consideration, not to mention that part of the site is on privately owned land. (No doubt those landowners are salivating at the moment.) And expansion plans are underway for a highway that runs nearby, which could wreak havoc on archeological excavation plans.

So, while a portion of the site will likely be excavated, attracting some of the 1.2 million people who visit Stonehenge each year, there are no plans at the moment to unearth the whole site.

Still, there are other noteworthy archeological sites near Stonehenge that most travelers skip, including Marden Henge and Avebury.

Photos: 13 Best England Experiences

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma