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yes or no 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

british airways club world seats 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

spinning globeImagine 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

thailand boatWe 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

seatbelt seat belt airplaneAs 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

woman on planeAre the days of disconnectivity at 35,000 feet numbered? They just might be as airlines respond to passengers’ growing demand for Wi-Fi in the air. Already, 38 percent of domestic flights offer the service.

Another nine percent of flights are in the midst of rolling out Wi-Fi, with most rollouts expected to be completed within 18 to 24 months, a Routehappy report revealed. Routehappy.com is a flight search Web site that incorporates information about types of seats available, onboard amenities and flier ratings into its search results.

But how do you guarantee that you’ll pick one of the 38 percent of flights with Wi-Fi when you travel? For starters, choose a Virgin America or AirTran flight if you can. The entire fleets of both airlines are fully Wi-Fi-enabled.

Airport Internet Tips

If neither of those lines is an option, look for a Delta or Southwest flight. Delta offers 3,443 domestic Wi-Fi-enabled flights (about 63 percent of the fleet) daily. The majority of Delta’s non-Wi-Fi-enabled flights are on regional jets used on flights under an hour.

Southwest offers 2,320 (about 74 percent of the fleet) Wi-Fi-enabled flights with another 800 rolling it out.

US Airways is another line to check out; it offers Wi-Fi on 1,293 domestic flights a day (a little over 40 percent of its fleet).

Lagging further behind are: American with 541 Wi-Fi-enabled flights a day and 908 rolling out; Alaska with 393 flights a day; and United Airlines, which is in the midst of rolling out Wi-Fi on 494 daily flights.

Tips for Better Wi-Fi on the Road

Where you’re flying from can also be a determining factor in whether your flight has Wi-Fi. Because Delta’s main hub is in Atlanta, you’re almost guaranteed Wi-Fi if you fly a Delta plane out of ATL.

And, certain routes, like Los Angeles-to-San Francisco, Los Angeles-to-New York and Atlanta-to-Orlando, are highly connected, with 31, 27 and 26 Wi-Fi-enabled flights offered on each route, respectively.

Another thing to look for when seeking out a Wi-Fi-enabled flight is what type of plane you’ll be flying on. Boeing 737s offer the most Wi-Fi, with 3,546 flights operating daily and another 800 in the midst of rolling it out.

How to Escape While Staying Connected

– written by Dori Saltzman

room serviceTwo recent announcements from the hotel and airline industries may signal new travel trends — neither of which is particularly a good sign for consumers.

In a move reminiscent of when airlines began cutting services, a handful of hotel companies have said they will be reducing or dropping room service. According to Fox News, the New York Hilton Midtown revealed it will be getting rid of room service, replacing it with a cafeteria-style eatery. The hotel blamed a decline in demand, but will undoubtedly be saving money with the move. Another New York City hotel following suit is the Grand Hyatt 42nd Street, which reduced room service hours. Outside of New York, the Hilton Hawaiian Village eliminated room service as well.

While I’m not a frequent room service customer, I do appreciate the option … especially if I have arrived at my destination late, feel grungy and am too tired to trudge out to the hotel’s restaurant.

Hidden Hotel Fees

And it’s not like it’s a free service the hotels are eliminating. Room service is notorious for being expensive, so if customers are willing to pay, I don’t really understand why hotels can’t always have it as an option.

Fortunately, not all hotels are jumping onto the bandwagon. A Marriott International, Inc., spokeswoman told Reuters the company has no plans to eliminate room service.

Going in the other direction (at least on the face of it), United Airlines is trying to make it easier for passengers to take advantage of all the “extra” services the line offers, like additional legroom and checked bags. The airline has launched two subscription services that enable fliers to pay one fee to get access to some of the services it normally charges extra for. For instance, from $349 a year you can get “free” checked bags on every flight you take. Or, from $499 a year, you can guarantee yourself an Economy Plus seat. For either subscription, you must select the region you’ll be flying in; the more destinations you want to include, the higher the price.

The subscription service is supposed to save passengers money in the long run. But you have to fly at least 14 times (or seven round trips) in order to start saving on checked bags, assuming you’re only checking one bag in North America.

Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

The exact number of flights you need to start saving on Economy Plus seats is much more vague, as the pricing of those seats varies by travel distance and when you purchase them.

So unless you’re a very frequent flier within the United States and Canada who wants to check just one bag, you’re probably not going to save a dime by taking out a subscription. Instead, United will just make more money off of you.

It seems to me that’s exactly what both of these companies are trying to do: make more money and reduce expenses by eliminating traditional customer services or continually charging more for them.

And that’s an overall trend I’m not a fan of.

– written by Dori Saltzman

airport securityFollowing an outpouring of opposition from flight attendants and government officials, the Transportation Security Administration recently decided to scrap its plan to allow passengers to carry small knives (of 2.36 inches or less) once again on planes — a practice that’s been prohibited since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

It got us thinking: while some travel-related policies are meant to keep us safe — like the in-cabin knife ban that has been upheld — there are others that seem to serve no purpose whatsoever for consumers. Below, we examine four of them.

Currency Conversion Charges
If you’ve ever used your credit card abroad and been hit with fees for currency conversion, you’re not alone. In some cases, the fees are a percentage of the amount charged — which can add up to a heck of a lot if you’re paying for something expensive like a hotel room. Does it really cost anything for card companies to convert the charges, or is it just one more way for them to make money?

The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas

Airport Security Shoe Removal
If I’m wearing tall, cavernous boots that could hide a bomb or stilettos so high they might double as weaponry, I understand this rule; if I’m wearing flip-flops, I don’t. But wait! The TSA is making exceptions of late. If you’re really young or really old, you can leave your shoes on. As we all know, terrorists are only between the ages of 13 and 74.

Nontransferable Tickets
It’s a concept that’s so rigid it serves only to sell more seats on planes. Life happens, and, sure, airlines can accommodate changes … for the right price, of course. Spelled your name wrong during the booking process? Perhaps you’ll get a sympathetic ear on the phone, and you’ll be allowed to change it without too much of a hassle. Or maybe you’ll be forced to pay a change fee or, worse yet, rebook completely. But forget about simply switching the name on your companion ticket if your flaky friend decides she can’t accompany you on that expensive vacation after all.

What Not to Do at the Airport

Mandatory Extra Fees
Raise your hand if you’ve booked a hotel or a rental car for one price and been slapped with “mandatory extras” after the fact. I recently took a trip to the Dominican Republic, where the driving conditions are so perilous that I was forced to pay for insurance on my rental car, even though my insurance provider back in the U.S. had me covered. And let’s not forget about the time I went to Las Vegas with friends, only to be pummeled with a “resort fee” because — gasp! — our hotel had a pool (which, to be honest, is a standard amenity at any hotel worth its salt). Let’s get it straight: if something is “mandatory,” it’s not an “extra” — it’s part of the price.

Which travel policies do you think are silly, unfair or outdated? Post them in the comments.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

spaceshiptwo Richard Branson, the brilliant billionaire owner of all things Virgin-branded, has been in the travel news quite a bit over the past few days, and it’s been an interesting mix of stories — good, bad and ugly.

Yesterday, Branson’s youngest stroke of travel company genius, Virgin Galactic, took a giant leap closer to its ultimate goal of space tourism when SpaceShipTwo ignited its rocket motor for the first time in mid-flight, bringing the spacecraft to a speed of Mach 1.2. With this supersonic test out of the way, Virgin Galactic anticipates making its first passenger space trips next year, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The company will offer daily trips to sub-orbital space, including about 10 minutes of zero gravitation. The price tag? $200,000. Considering Virgin Galactic has already taken 580 reservations worth about $70 million in deposits for a company that can’t yet deliver, you’ve got to give Branson credit for his genius.

But like Robert Louis Stevenson’s brilliant scientist Dr. Jekyll, Branson has not so much a darker side as an idiotic Mr. Hyde side. Sometimes he just does or says stupid things.

For instance, Virgin America recently launched a new seat-to-seat delivery service on flights. What exactly does that mean, you ask? Well, it could be a mom sitting a few rows away from her kids, having a snack box delivered to them. Or — and here’s what USA Today believes Branson has in mind with the service — it could be a passenger sending a drink to another passenger, just as he might do in a bar if he were, say, attempting to pick someone up.

Here’s how it works. Fliers find their intended recipient on a digital seat map, select an item to be delivered, swipe a credit card and then follow up with a text message using the seat-to-seat chat function.

Um, yuck. I guess if you’re happy to hear from a stranger sitting a few rows away it’s not so bad, but what if you’re totally uninterested? It’s not like you can go anywhere.

Not Branson’s most genius moment, if you ask us.

The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room

But it gets worse.

On Sunday, Branson criticized the British Foreign Office and other Western governments for issuing warnings about terrorism in travel advisory format.

Huh?

As reported by The Independent, Branson says that by warning people of the risk of attacks, governments are giving in to terrorists and harming those countries in the process. These warnings, he continued, should be discarded. Instead, Branson suggests that rather than warn people against visiting these places, people should be encouraged to participate in tourism and trade, in order to aid them. He cited a British Foreign Office bulletin about Egypt, an Australian government warning about Bali and a U.S. State Department alert on Kenya, which he said contributed to the decline in tourist numbers in these countries.

The Foreign Office soundly rejected Branson’s suggestion, saying it has a responsibility to make sure British citizens have the necessary information to make their own informed decisions.

While we understand the need to avoid needless monetary damage to a country, we have to side with the Foreign Office on this one. We’d rather know what our risks are before we make a decision, so as not to walk into a potentially hazardous situation.

Traveling in a Developing Country: 11 Dos and Don’ts

What do you think? Is Virgin Galactic a stroke of genius? Do you want someone you don’t know on a flight to be able to buy you a drink? Should governments issue travel alerts that include warnings about terrorism? Let us know below.

– written by Dori Saltzman

airplane silhouetteI have just as many gripes about airlines as the next person, and given that I’m a travel journalist, I tend to smile and nod vehemently when they’re crucified for decreasing seat sizes and charging for things like carry-on bags. But I can’t keep my mouth shut on this one.

After analyzing federal data, a group of private researchers says airline complaints from passengers increased by about 20 percent in 2012, despite more on-time flights and fewer lost bags, the Associated Press reports.

While I agree that customer complaints are bad — in an ideal world, there would be none at all — the article goes on to say this: “United Airlines had the highest consumer complaint rate of the 14 airlines included in the report, with 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers.” Forgive me if I sound insensitive, but is there really a reason to be terribly concerned if the worst offender generates only four complaints for every 100,000 of its passengers?

And let’s not forget this added tidbit: “That was nearly double the airline’s complaint rate the previous year.” Oh, the horror! Now four of every 100,000 United passengers are angry instead of two? I think I just heard the audience gasp.

To be fair, these numbers only include the passengers who were annoyed enough to report their grievances to the U.S. Department of Transportation; there are probably many more who took their complaints solely to the airline. And of course, seeing the number of complaints double is never a good sign. But let’s keep things in perspective.

Does Your Flight Attendant Hate You?

The AP also notes that larger planes and smaller seat sizes, which allow airlines to cram more passengers onto each plane, still aren’t enough to offset the decreased number of available flights — meaning last year saw a rise in the number of passengers bumped due to overbooking. “The rate at which passengers with tickets were denied seats because planes were full rose to 0.97 denials per 10,000 passengers last year, compared with 0.78 in 2011.”

In plain English, it means that of every 10,000 passengers, less than one person gets bumped because his or her flight is full. Can I get a big, fat “so what?”

Let’s focus on what the airlines are doing right. Want your bag to get to your destination at the same time you do? You’re in luck. According to the AP, the mishandled bag rate was 3.07 in 2012, down from 3.35 bags the previous year (and a high of 7.01 bags back in 2007). That means about three of every 1,000 bags were mishandled in the last two years. Yes, I’ve had lost luggage, and I know that for those three passengers, it’s terrible. But the stats are getting better.

The same is true for on-time arrivals, about 82 percent of which arrived on time in 2012 — an improvement over the 80 percent that landed on time in 2011.

I happen to think this is a positive outlook for the industry. Now, if only someone could figure out ways to speed up the security process and keep that middle seat unoccupied.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

What do you think? Is the report full of hot air, or does it have merit? Weigh in below.

–written by Ashley Kosciolek