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semester at seaWith the massive Target credit card data breach only about two months behind us, I’m not sure we’ve yet hit a “just when you thought it was safe” moment. And now, a new data breach is striking fear into the heart of consumers and, most especially, travelers.

White Lodging, a company that owns or manages 68 Hilton, Marriott, Westin and Sheraton hotels in 21 states, has experienced a data breach exposing thousands of guests’ credit and debit card data to thieves, a Yahoo Finance article revealed. The breach occurred between about March 23, 2013, and the end of the year. That’s more than nine months’ worth of credit/debit card information!

Most of the stolen data came from cards used in hotel restaurants and gift shops. USA Today has a full list of affected hotels.

White Lodge is not providing any information about the breach other than to say it is under investigation.

But perhaps what’s even more frightening than the breach itself is that it doesn’t surprise security experts.

Money Safety Tips for Travelers

Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Credit.com and Identify Theft911, told a Credit.com writer that breaches are inevitable. He even used the words, “None of this matters”!

What he’s really saying is that we just need to remain vigilant and monitor the charges that appear on our credit/debit card statements, because data breaches aren’t going away. He also recommends watching your credit reports (translation: use his Credit.com services).

In “11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling,” our own Ed Hewitt recommends checking your credit card statements regularly. While you should do this whenever you travel anyway, if you’ve stayed at a Marriott in the past year, make sure you go back and double check all your charges! You might even want to let your credit card bank know you stayed at a hotel you suspect may have been the target of a data theft.

While I’m not going to lie and say this latest data breach doesn’t scare me, what I walk away with is a renewed determination to keep doing what I’m doing and just accept that part of my traveling routine now must include actively checking my credit card statements while I’m traveling and in the weeks and months after a trip.

Keep Your Home Safe on Vacation: 9 Essential Tips

– written by Dori Saltzman

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.

globe woman world travelNow that we’re well into the winter doldrums, it’s time to warm yourself up by planning out all your trips for the year — and a travel trade show can help. These expos are gathering places for destination experts that can give you first-hand advice and recommendations. In some cases, you can even enter to win a free trip! Travel shows also feature cultural performances, talks by travel pros such as Rick Steves and Arthur Frommer, and plenty of fun freebies.

Read on to see our list of upcoming travel trade shows around the U.S. and Canada — and don’t forget to read our 9 Tips to Get the Most from a Travel Show.

Toronto: Travel Expo (January 18)

Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times Travel Show (January 18 – 19)

Calgary: Travel Expo (January 25)

Philadelphia: Philadelphia Inquirer Travel Show (January 25 – 26)

Santa Clara: Bay Area Travel & Adventure Show (January 25 – 26)

Boston: Boston Globe Travel Show (February 7 – 9)

Los Angeles: Travel & Adventure Show (February 8 – 9)

Vancouver: Travel Expo (February 22)

Washington D.C.: Travel & Adventure Show (February 22 – 23)

Denver: Colorado RV, Sports, Boat & Travel Show (February 27 – March 2)

Seattle: Seattle Golf & Travel Show (February 28 – March 2)

New York City: New York Times Travel Show (March 1 – 2)

San Diego: Travel & Adventure Show (March 29 – 30)

Photos: Top Destinations for 2014

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Just when we’ve finally figured out how to comply with those complicated liquid and gel restrictions at airport security, they could be on the way out — at least in Europe.

Last week, London’s Heathrow Airport began installing screening devices that can test liquids, gels and aerosols in a variety of containers, reports the Los Angeles Times. The devices, made by the Ohio-based Battelle company, use radio waves and ultrasonic technology to scan for explosives. To see the machine in action, check out the following video from Battelle:


The Los Angeles Times reports that Heathrow will begin using the technology in January, but only for medicine and duty-free liquids. Assuming the initial results are good, the airport may start to permit other liquids and gels through the new screeners within the next year. The European Union is hoping to lift the liquid and gel ban in all of its airports by 2016.

Here in the U.S., Battelle’s liquid scanner is one of several types of technology being considered for use in airports, but the Los Angeles Times quotes a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) statement that doesn’t seem to bode well for any quick changes: “Liquid explosives are a serious threat, and we aren’t ready to move away from the ban on liquids.”

Bottom line: Don’t leave your quart-size bag at home just yet.

How to Hack Your Way to a Cheaper Flight

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane tabletThe days of having to stow your Kindle, cell phone or iPod at the very beginning and end of a flight will soon be coming to an end. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced today that “airlines can safely expand passenger use of Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) during all phases of flight.”

The decision comes after the FAA consulted with a panel of pilots, aviation manufacturers, airline representatives and other experts, who determined that devices being used in airplane mode should not interfere with the safe operation of most commercial aircraft.

This doesn’t mean you can whip out your laptop during takeoff on a flight this weekend. The new policy will be implemented on an airline-by-airline basis, with each carrier having to assess its own fleet and present evidence to the FAA that its planes won’t be affected by radio interference from PEDs. The FAA expects that many airlines will be approved for PED use by the end of the year.

Taking Photos on Planes: On the No-Fly List?

A few things to note:

– You still won’t be able to use your cell phone for voice calls, and other devices must be kept in airplane mode.

– You may only use Wi-Fi on your device if the plane has installed a Wi-Fi system and the airline allows it to be used.

– Heavier devices should still be stowed during takeoff and landing.

– Finally, says the FAA, “In some instances of low visibility — about one percent of flights — some landing systems may not be proved PED tolerant, so you may be asked to turn off your device.”

How to Fix the TSA

Personally, we think it’s about time — what’s your take?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

space balloon capsuleTwo things have been holding me back from signing up for a trip to space: a susceptibility to motion sickness and a decided lack of millions of dollars. Now a new company has emerged with a possible solution to both of my issues.

World View Enterprises recently revealed plans to use a helium balloon to lift eight customers in a pressurized capsule to the brink of space, nearly 100,000 feet (just under 19 miles) above the earth. According to the Washington Post, the trip would last about four hours, with a 1.5-hour ascent and two hours spent hovering at the edge of outer space. From that height, participants would be surrounded by the intense darkness of the sky and able to see Earth curving beneath them.

The company hopes to launch its first customer outing by 2016.

Seven Strange Foods from Around the World

Because the capsule, which would protect occupants from the harsh dangers of the upper atmosphere, would never actually get into space, require G-force speeds or reach zero gravity, the risk of motion sickness would be minimal as compared to other space travel options.

The price tag is also significantly reduced from other forms of space travel … but in the way that a Vera Wang dress on sale at 50 percent off still costs a mint. Half off sounds great, but 50 percent of $50,000 is still a whopping $25,000.

In this case, the difference in price between Virgin Galactic’s $250,000 proposed space jaunt and World View’s edge-of-space offering is a massive 70 percent. And compared to the $50 million price tag for Space Adventures’ trip to the International Space Station — the only currently available option for space tourists — the World View offering is an absolute steal.

But it’s still $75,000 for a four-hour trip, which puts it solidly outside of my travel budget.

Are you tempted by the new company’s offering? Is $75,000 closer to what you’d pay to get near to space, or would you rather use the same amount of money to explore more of the planet you’re already on?

9 Places to See Before the World Ends

– written by Dori Saltzman

nickel and dimingIf price is no longer the differentiator between legacy airlines like Delta, United and American Airlines and so-called discount carriers like JetBlue and Southwest, what is?

I say it’s the way they treat their customers.

The legacy carriers, who used to be all about providing the best customer experience, now seem to look at their passengers simply as cash cows. On the other hand, the “discount” lines, excepting small carriers like Spirit and Allegiant, are dedicated to the idea that a good customer experience with amenities included in the airfare is the path to success.

Case in point: a recent Forbes article argues that overhead bin space will be the next formerly-included amenity to be unbundled from the airfare.

Already the most deeply discounted carriers, Spirit and Allegiant, have gone that route charging for carry-on bags.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

And while it seems inconceivable that the major carriers would follow suit, some experts argue overhead been space has already being monetized via the sale of priority boarding passes, which passengers on legacy airlines buy almost exclusively in order to gain access to overhead bins first.

A New York Times article, cited by Forbes, quotes Jay Sorenson, president of airline consulting firm IdeaWorksCompany, who said revenue for early boarding is increasing; he predicts airlines will implement more such fees.

On the other end of the spectrum, JetBlue is making flying easier — and possibly less expensive — for its customers with a new frequent flier program called Family Pooling.

The program enables families of up to two adults and five children to combine their TrueBlue frequent flier points together to make it easier to earn enough points for a free flight. Even better, the two adults don’t actually need to be related; two friends can pool their miles, then split the cost of a second ticket. And the airline is doing this without having to charge extra for bags, either checked (first checked only) or carry-on!

How ironic that the airlines that used to have to separate themselves from the pack through low fares now only have to go back to the good old days of treating passengers like valued customers rather than piggy banks on two feet.

Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

– written by Dori Saltzman

cell phoneNo, that isn’t a pig flying past your head, but it is an equally uncommon sight: a company that’s actually reducing fees for travelers.

That company is T-Mobile, and those fees are roaming charges for travelers using their cell phones abroad. The New York Times reports that T-Mobile will eliminate the exorbitant rates for texts, data and phone calls that send many travelers home with hundreds of dollars in unexpected fees on their cell phone bills after an international vacation.

According to T-Mobile’s website, travelers will be entitled to unlimited free data and texts in more than 100 countries, starting on October 20 for new customers and October 31 for existing customers. Calls will cost 20 cents a minute. To take advantage, you must be part of the company’s Simple Choice Plan and have a phone capable of connecting outside the U.S.

Keep in mind that while many popular countries are covered (such as France, Italy, Australia and Japan), there are a few places where traditional — read: expensive — international rates will still apply. These include Morocco, Laos and Botswana, to name a few.

16 Offbeat Travel Apps Worth a Download

As the New York Times notes, this offers potentially huge savings over plans from competing cell phone carriers. AT&T, for example, charges $60 for 300 megabytes of data outside the U.S., 10 – 20 cents per text message and $1 (or more) per minute for phone calls.

Here’s hoping T-Mobile’s new policy succeeds in drawing globetrotting cell phone users away from other carriers; we always like to see companies that put customers first getting rewarded.

Now, airlines — about those baggage fees…

11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling

– written by Sarah Schlichter

shenandoah national park virginia autumn fallAs we enter day two of the limited U.S. government shutdown, so far travelers are mostly unaffected by the congressional deadlock. It’s business as usual at airports and border crossings, and passport applications are still being processed. However, travelers hoping to go leaf-peeping in a national park or visit the Smithsonian museums are out of luck.

All national parks, monuments, historic sites and other properties run by the National Park Service are closed (and you can’t even access their websites) during the shutdown. And this doesn’t just affect sites in the U.S. — the Normandy American Cemetery in France will also be closed for the duration of the shutdown, along with other overseas properties run by the American Battle Monuments Commission.

State parks are a good alternative to consider for those seeking hiking trails, outdoor recreation and scenic landscapes while the national parks are closed. Thrillist has put together a list of state parks near popular national properties such as Yellowstone, Zion and Acadia.

If the shutdown continues, travelers may start to see a slowdown at airports and ports as more employees may be furloughed or those who are covering for furloughed employees begin to burn out. Already, one third of the Federal Aviation Administration’s workforce has been furloughed, the (Newark) Star-Ledger reports. FAA officials said the furloughs have so far not affected daily flight operations or safety.

A spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told the Star-Ledger that staffing at airport security checkpoints will not be reduced. At cruise ports and border patrol checkpoints, U.S. Customs and Border Control will most likely be unaffected, as “they have been deemed law enforcement necessary or necessary for the safety of life and protection of property,” the CPB states on its website.

For travelers in the process of getting a passport, the longer the shutdown continues the greater the chance the passport won’t come. At the moment, passport services are functioning as normal with a processing time of up to four weeks for routine applications and two weeks for expedited service. For some people, though, actually picking up their passport could already be a problem as any passport agency located in a government building affected by the shutdown “may become unsupported,” the Department of State wrote on its website.

10 Things Not to Wear When Traveling Abroad

The Department of State will continue to provide emergency services as necessary to U.S. citizens overseas.

Has your trip been affected by the shutdown?

– written by Dori Saltzman and Sarah Schlichter

greenwich village apartment buildingsAirbnb, the social website that connects travelers with locals who are willing to rent out living spaces on a short-term basis, scored a big victory in New York last week. The back story: Nigel Warren, a New York-based Airbnb host who had rented out his bedroom while he himself was traveling, was fined $2,400 for violating local laws that make it illegal to rent out a home for less than 30 days.

This matter potentially had massive ramifications, not just for Airbnb but also for travelers, who have flocked to the site to find value-priced lodgings with a local feel and ambience, rather than high-priced hotels. Airbnb hosts rent out apartments, houses and spare rooms.

In support for Warren and other hosts in New York, Airbnb worked with Warren to appeal the fine. A clarification by the New York City Environmental Control Board was handed down last week. The ruling articulated that hosts can rent out rooms as long as a permanent occupant of the home is in residence (in Warren’s case, his roommate, who was also on the lease, was present).

“In the appeal, we and Nigel argued — and the appeal board now agrees — that under New York law as long as a permanent occupant is present during a stay, the stay does not violate New York’s short term rental laws,” wrote David Hantman, Airbnb’s Head of Global Public Policy, on the company’s blog.

Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals

The bottom line for New Yorkers: It’s still okay to rent out a spare room if you’re present at the time, and it’s still illegal to rent out an apartment that you don’t live in. But the news is that as long as some permanent occupant is there, even if you as the host are not, your rental is legal.

The battle’s not fully over yet in New York, as this new development does not protect those who rent out empty apartments. (There are currently more than 1,000 such listings on Airbnb.com.) Still, it’s a start — and Warren gets his fine refunded.

All eyes now turn to a similar battle now playing out in the Los Angeles community of Silver Lake. Stay tuned.

– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown