As 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
Airbnb, 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
For every long-legged traveler who’s sick of being pretzeled into increasingly small airplane seats, a new study offers insight into how to land yourself a few precious extra inches of legroom.
Routehappy.com surveyed U.S. airlines in search of “Roomier” seats — those with at least 32 inches of seat pitch — that travelers could find in regular economy class without having to pay extra. The carrier on which you’re most likely to find these is Southwest Airlines, which offers nearly 1,000 domestic flights a day with Roomier seats (this reflects 31 percent of all Southwest flights). Alaska Airlines came in second with 752 flights, or 96 percent of its daily offerings.
While those airlines win out due to the sheer number of flights they offer, it’s worth noting that a couple of smaller airlines, JetBlue and Virgin America, offer at least 32 inches of seat pitch on 100 percent of their planes. JetBlue’s A320 planes have a generous 34 inches of seat pitch, and they’re wider than average to boot. Virgin America’s seats are also wider than most, offer 32 inches of seat pitch, and have both Wi-Fi and power outlets — a combination that you won’t find fleetwide on any other airline, according to Routehappy.
In all, you can find more spacious seats for free on 13 percent of domestic flights.
Secrets of the World’s Best Airlines
If you’re willing to pay extra for more space, you have plenty of options. Routehappy reports that of the 22,000 domestic flights that take off each day in the U.S., 9,000 of them have more spacious economy-class seats available for purchase. (Delta and United have the most, followed by American and JetBlue.) On international flights, 47 percent of the 1,800 daily departures have Extra Legroom Economy or Premium Economy options.
You can download the full report at Routehappy.com. The site also offers fare searches with results ranked by “happiness score,” which takes seat size, airplane amenities, length of trip and flier ratings into account.
Check out our tips for How to Get the Best Airplane Seat.
– written by Sarah Schlichter
Bill Bryson may have been going for a tongue-in-cheek approach when he wrote about the various ways one might die in Australia (“In a Sunburned Country”) and along the Appalachian Trail (“A Walk in the Woods”), but he was more than just a little serious too.
If you’re going to visit Australia, the truth is you’d better watch out for saltwater crocodiles, sharks, stinging jellyfish and redback spiders. And bears in North America are nothing to laugh at (except when Bryson writes about them, that is).
But wildlife predators are not the only thing tourists need to be wary of when traveling if they want to get home in one piece. I’ve read too many tragic tales of travelers killed in helicopter tours (in Hawaii and in New York City, to name a few) to ever climb aboard one.
Drinking Water Safety
And, of course, there’s always the cliché that rings a little too true about holding on for dear life when riding taxis in Rome, Paris or New York City.
Now, sadly, I may also have to worry about gondolas and water buses in Venice.
Earlier this month a German tourist was killed when the gondola he was on collided with a water bus in Venice’s Grand Canal. As it turns out, the gondolier tested positive for cocaine, but authorities also believe boat congestion on the Canal may have been a factor.
10 Things You Should Never Wear When Traveling Abroad
Will this incident stop me from taking a gondola ride when I finally get to Venice? Probably not. The truth is I have a better chance of being hit by a car on the way to work than dumped in the Grand Canal during my few days in Venice. So, no, fear is not going to stop me, but I’ll certainly be more vigilant. Just as I checked for spiders in my shoes in Australia, avoided taxis in Paris and eschew helicopters everywhere.
Do any destination’s specific dangers scare you? Do you take any precautions?
– written by Dori Saltzman
When it comes to kid-free zones on planes, Asian airlines continue to be trailblazers. A year after Malaysia Airlines introduced child-free sections on its A380 planes, Singapore Airlines’ low-cost carrier, Scoot, is following suit. USA Today reports that fliers can pay $15 to sit in the new “ScootinSilence” section in the front of the economy cabin, where seats have extra legroom and kids under age 12 will not be permitted. Another Asian carrier, AirAsia X, also recently added a kid-free “Quiet Zone.”
Although no U.S. airlines have instituted similar measures, kid-free zones seem to be a growing trend that could catch on around the globe if they continue to be popular in Asia. Our own Traveler’s Ed has spoken up in favor — check out 10 Reasons Every Plane Should Have a Family Zone. Meanwhile, contributing editor Erica Silverstein offers a parent’s perspective on how we can all just get along when both adults and children are in the same cabin: An Open Letter to People Who Hate Flying with Kids.
Do you think more airlines should add child-free zones? Speak out in the comments below!
– written by Sarah Schlichter
Here at IndependentTraveler.com, we see a lot of news items about things tourists have done when traveling. Most of the time, the stories are inspirational and uplifting. But sometimes, we just have to throw our hands up in the air and ask: What was that person thinking?!
For all those travelers who seem to have left their common sense at home, we’ve put together three important rules you should never break when traveling.
1. Don’t High-Five the Statues: Here’s the headline: “American Tourist Snaps Finger Off 600-Year-Old Statue in Florence Museum.” Now to be fair, the tourist involved here didn’t actually high-five the statue. He put his hand up against the statue’s to compare sizes. But we think the rule still applies. When encountering art that’s 10 times older than you, it’s probably better to stick to a hands-off approach. Incidentally, when IndependentTraveler.com Senior Editor Sarah Schlichter first shared this story with the office, a colleague asked, “Where were the parents?” Seems fair to assume that the tourist involved was a child, right? Nope. He’s 55.
4 Tourists We Don’t Want to Travel With
2. Don’t Make “I’m Going to Destroy” Jokes: By now most of us realize that cracking bomb jokes in public is not a good idea. But apparently not everyone has figured out that what you say in cyberspace is, indeed, public. So when a British tourist on the way to the United States tweeted “Free this week for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?” he apparently thought only his friends were going to see it. He was wrong. He also mistakenly assumed anyone who did see it would know that “destroy” was British slang for party it up. Instead of the fun Hollywood vacation he’d planned, he and a friend were arrested at LAX and jailed for 12 hours before being sent back to England.
3. Don’t Mess With the Animals: Forget about the tourists who think it’s a good idea to jump into a zoo cage or charge an elephant, though we highly advise against those moves as well. No, what we’re talking about are people who think it’s a good idea to walk off with a zoo animal. Like these boneheads who, after drinking way too much, broke into a SeaWorld in Australia and woke up the next morning with one of the park’s penguins in their apartment. They were caught when they tried to release the bird into a local canal. Now that we think about it, there’s probably more than one lesson in this tale … like being careful how much you have to drink in the first place and staying away from closed tourist attractions.
Traveling in a Developing Country: 11 Dos and Don’ts
–written by Dori Saltzman
Every 20 years or so, often unfortunately following the crash of a commercial aircraft such as Asiana Airlines Flight 214, the topic of reversing airplane seats to face the rear of the plane, uh, rears its head in the media. To wit, see Rear-facing aircraft seats ‘safer’ in the U.K.’s Telegraph. The newspaper explains that rear-facing seats “provide better support for the back, neck and head in the event of sudden deceleration.”
As one commenter on the article notes, this idea is not really news. Just ask parents in the U.S., where the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants face backward in car seats until at least age 2. The first serious research that resulted in recommendations for rear-facing seats was done in 1952.
The Telegraph makes a raft of good points about how airlines, many of which are focused on reducing costs almost to the point of obsession and even recklessness, are highly unlikely to take on the costs associated with reconfiguring their fleets with new seats, new television screens and windows in new positions, not to mention overhauling their seat assignment systems. Besides the initial sunk costs of trashing the old seats and purchasing and installing new ones, most available backward-facing seats are heavier than the ones currently in use, at a time when many airlines are trying to reduce aircraft weight to reduce fuel consumption.
The reason the seats weigh more is important; when passengers are facing backward, the seats have to absorb much more of the impact in the event of a crash, and so need stronger and heavier reinforcements where they are bolted to the floor.
How to Survive a Plane Crash
If a bit of extra fuel seems like a minor sacrifice to make for massively increased safety, it’s informative to keep in mind how aggressive some airlines have been about weight reductions — including that of their staffers. Seriously, if Ryanair has gone so far as to cut the size of its in-flight magazines and stock less ice to reduce aircraft weight — not to mention asking flight crews to watch their weight — are they likely to put heavier seats on their planes?
I wonder also about the passenger comfort issues rear-facing seats might present, especially for those of us who are prone to motion sickness. Ever sit on a backward-facing train seat? I have, and it takes about five minutes before your brain starts sending signals to turn around — now. My recommendation: Don’t do it on a full stomach or after a pub crawl.
That said, there are plenty of first-class cabins on larger planes that alternate forward and rear-facing seats to allow for more room to recline, and for more first-class seats to be put on planes. (British Airways’ Club World, pictured above, is one example.) Readers, have any of you sat in these? What was it like?
Asiana Airlines Crash: Where Are the Safest Seats on a Plane?
All told, given the various forces of resistance to the idea outlined above, and the fact that this idea has been floated since the early 1950’s without becoming more widespread, it is probably a fair assumption that we won’t be staring at the back of the plane on takeoff — at least not anytime soon.
– written by Ed Hewitt
Imagine this: you’ve planned a fun (or, depending on your circumstances, maybe not so fun) trip, and you’re at the airport, packed and ready to go. Then the vacation fairy comes along and offers to voluntarily throw a wrench in your itinerary. Would you take her up on it?
The idea comes from Heineken’s new ad campaign. It doesn’t involve a fairy, but, rather, four guys who are randomly plunked down in remote locations, and their adventures documented. As part of the promotion, reports AdWeek, Heineken’s marketing agency set up a game of “Departure Roulette” at New York’s JFK airport last week, asking travelers to forgo their scheduled plans on a whim by pushing a big red button to determine a new, more exotic destination (with hotels and spending money provided by Heineken).
I have to admit that I’m a planner, and one of my worst fears is being stuck someplace foreign without knowing precisely when I’ll arrive home (or, in this case, at my original destination). I don’t like disruptions to my itineraries, and, since not all destinations appeal to me, I’m not sure I’d take the risk (lest I end up like one fellow, whose planned trip to Vienna to visit his grandparents rerouted him to Cyprus instead).
Planning vs. Spontaneity: Which Do You Prefer?
Regardless of whether or not you like Heineken, it’s a crazy — but fun — idea. And it brings us to the question of the day: Would you switch (or have you already switched) your plans at the last minute in hopes of more exciting travel? What would be your ideal far-flung destination? Share your comments below.
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
We recently challenged our readers to write a trip review about their travels for a chance to win a $150 Amazon.com gift card. Reading the submissions that poured in — which described trips to places from Alaska to Amsterdam — gave us a severe case of wanderlust.
It was tough to pick the best review to win the prize, but in the end, we gave the nod to D. Rockett for a review called Thailand Epiphanies. Here’s a taste of the winning review:
“A recent trip to Thailand took me to the bustle of Bangkok, the serene majesty of Chiang Mai and the natural beauty of Phuket … all places that made me realize I didn’t really know who I was until I got there. No. I didn’t channel Julia Roberts in ‘Eat Pray Love.’ Real life can’t be weeded down to a 2-hour revelation of life’s big meanings. Instead, epiphanies occur in the margins of your story’s notebook — notes culled during a boat ride with friends that makes stops to let customers feed catfish and allows for bartering for tchotchkes from a vendor in a canoe; life’s big plan can be witnessed in the humble nature of a people via a refugee camp of women and children from Padong, Aka, and Yao tribes; and balance can be pondered when riding in a barely air-conditioned van on the shoulder of a road for miles on end butted next to a truck who will not budge an inch or cause an accident while he is riding in the proper lane.” Read the rest!
While we only had one prize to give, we want to give a little love to a few runners-up that also wrote excellent reviews. Have a sampling:
Road trip to the Grand Canyon North Rim by Katie Matthews: “During our four-day stay we saw sunsets and rain clouds, lightning and rainbows, and Jupiter and its rings (!!!) all from our little spot on the seemingly top of the world.”
My Week as a Marine Biologist by GingerD: “We would then all go down to the shore where we drew a line in the damp sand, had everyone gather behind the line, ‘wash’ their hands with dry sand to remove oils and give everyone a baby turtle to put down and watch as they made their slow journey down the sand and into the ocean.”
Embracing Amsterdam by Christian Dew: “If you like free beer, yes I said free beer, then you must visit the Heineken Experience and that is located at Stadhouderskade 78, 1072 AE, Amsterdam.”
Accessible Santa Fe by Helen Gallagher: “As we traveled around, my husband, with his transport chair, found doors were opening for him, a hand was ready to help over a bump in the road, space was made available in small cafes, and certainly our accessible hotel room was more than gracious.”
Feeling inspired? Write about your latest trip!
– written by Sarah Schlichter
As we learn more about how Asiana Airlines’ Flight 214’s crash landing at San Francisco Airport wasn’t as tragic as it could have been, the water cooler debate on network chat shows today is focusing on whether some airplane seats are safer than others.
Conventional wisdom has long theorized that the safest seats are in the back of the plane. And yet, as we report in How Flying Coach Could Save Your Life, studies (and airline experts) don’t necessarily agree. One study, carried out by the British Civil Aviation Authority in partnership with Greenwich University, concluded that passengers are safer in the front of the plane. But Popular Mechanics did an in-depth examination of flight crash occurrences and determined that the rear is a safer place to sit. The Discovery Channel came to a similar conclusion in Curiosity: Inside a Plane Crash, which put cameras inside a Boeing 727 as it crashed in the Sonoran Desert. (The video is worth a watch, though the scientists’ fascination and excitement as they watch the crash footage may strike some as a bit macabre in the wake of the Asiana incident.)
Clearly, there’s no one prevailing view on the safest place to sit on an aircraft, which is understandable when you realize that part of the reason studies are in conflict is that not all crashes — or airplane models — are the same. In the Asiana incident, for instance, the angle of impact severed the plane’s tail, and CNN noted that many injured passengers were seated in the rear.
Boeing’s own Web site simply says, “One seat is as safe as another, especially if you stay buckled up.”
Five Foods to Avoid Before Flying
The good news is that the aviation industry, as ABC World News Tonight reports, has made major and life-saving improvements to protect passengers during emergencies, including sturdier seats, improved flame retardancy on planes and enhanced rescue efforts. But for the moment, as the post-Asiana crash news continues to emerge — and we anxiously await updates on both the status of passengers who were injured and the cause of the crash — we can take some comfort in this, also from ABC News:
“Riding on a commercial airplane has got about the same amount of risk as riding on an escalator,” says MIT International Center for Air Transportation Director John Hansman, Jr.
Poll: Are You a Nervous Flier?
– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown