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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

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

cabin crew flight attendant pilot planeThere are several areas on planes where access is restricted to crew only. The cockpit is one; baggage storage areas are another. But many passengers — even frequent fliers — don’t realize there are also bunk areas where cabin crew sleep during long-haul flights.

Thanks to an article from Business Insider, we’ve gotten a small glimpse of what these areas look like (although we’re pretty sure they’re smaller than they appear and don’t lend themselves to having, as one commenter put it, “a pre-teen slumber party”).

What’s neat about them is how they’re accessed. Often reached via a secret door near the cockpit and a tiny set of winding stairs, most of these areas can sleep anywhere from six to 10 crewmembers via bunks or side-by-side mattresses divided by curtains or other partitions. Some airlines also offer pajamas.

Even cooler: On certain plane models, these areas have emergency exits that feed into the main passenger cabins through what appear to be normal overhead bins.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Did you know these areas existed? What are some of your favorite travel secrets? Be sure to share in the comments below.

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

baggage claim airportAirlines often have us jumping through hoops — okay, metal detectors — before boarding their planes. You’ve seen fellow fliers looking panicked (read: me) as they hastily unpack luggage contents into other bags to redistribute weight, or shove carry-on bags into the rigid metal sizers and pray the wheels and handle jutting out won’t raise any eyebrows. However, a few air carriers seem to have another stipulation in mind before letting you on their next flight: stepping on the scale yourself.

An article in USA Today reports that Uzbekistan Airways has unfolded a plan to weigh passengers along with their bags as a safety measure. While the airline promises this information will not be made public, it has not specified whether this individual weight designation will determine whether you get on the plane or not. In 2012 Samoa Air, another small airline, took the precaution one step further and began charging passengers by weight. Surprisingly, the regulation has held up three years later with the airline’s site even boasting the slogan, “A kilo is a kilo is a kilo!”

Could such a policy be enacted here in the U.S.? Doubtful, according to a New York Times article from 2013: “While no major airline would consider the folly of actually weighing passengers, passenger weight is factored into overall calculations for any flight on any airplane, partly based in the United States on Federal Aviation Administration average weight estimates that have been revised upward in recent years as waistlines have grown.”

Do You Know Your Passenger Rights?

While it’s true that planes adhere to strict weight regulations, the majority of major carriers seem to get around this issue without getting personal (well, any more personal than a body scan, a possible pat-down and a look at all of your identification). On Southwest, passengers who cannot fit comfortably into one seat (and by comfortably, the airline means travelers who don’t fit at all) must purchase a second seat. The same holds true for American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and United.

If there was a promise that your trip would not be changed regardless of the outcome, would you feel comfortable stepping on a scale before your next flight? Where do you draw the line for safety in the sky?

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

baggage claim airportLast month, the Los Angeles Times came out with a surprising report: According to academic studies, airline baggage fees have actually improved flier satisfaction.

Per the article, these oft-complained-about fees have “led to fewer lost-bag reports, fewer delayed flights and a drop in bag-related passenger complaints.”

While it’s not the news most of us want to hear — we’ll never get rid of these fees now! — it makes logical sense in some ways. The surcharges make passengers less likely to check bags, which means there are fewer bags for the airline to lose. Flight delays are also less likely since there aren’t as many suitcases for baggage handlers to load onto the plane.

But when we shared the L.A. Times report with our followers on Facebook, they didn’t seem too inclined to agree with the researchers’ conclusion that baggage fees have actually made fliers’ lives better.

“People try to drag much more in carry-on bags onto a plane, which causes issues when there is not enough room,” wrote Tom Vertrees. “Makes disembarkation much longer and more stress on travelers.”

Staxy Morrison concurred: “It adds to more people having to check baggage at the gate and more confusion when boarding!”

7 Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

Colleen R Costello pointed out that the airlines have an ulterior motive in the way they charge baggage fees: “From what I read it’s only been a way for them to divert income from one category to another! Seems baggage fees aren’t taxed or treated the same way as fare revenue is! Sneaky.” (Colleen is right: Airlines must pay a 7.5 excise tax on the base airfares that they charge, but this tax is not applicable to ancillary charges such as baggage fees.)

But our favorite response might just be the one from Mickey Morgan: “What bag fees? I fly Southwest.”

Quiz: How Well Do You Know the Airlines?

What’s your take? Do you think that baggage fees have been a net positive for fliers overall?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Earlier this year, JetBlue introduced a new series of Flight Etiquette videos that gently mock the egregious behavior of some air travelers — like the person who falls asleep and drools on your shoulder. Or the guy who brings a foul-smelling lunch that stinks up the whole cabin. Or the woman who shares her entire life story over the course of a three-hour flight.

The latest installment of the series addresses the people often called “gate lice” — folks who are so desperate to get on the plane that they crowd around the gate well before their own boarding zone is called. The video made me laugh out loud a few times:

While it’s easy to make fun of these overly aggressive travelers, it’s also worth asking whether this is something the airlines have brought upon themselves. Many fliers are eager to board as early as possible because they know there’s not enough overhead bin space for everyone’s carry-ons, especially now that so many of us are trying to avoid paying extra to check a bag. The fact that JetBlue recently added fees for the first checked bag will probably only make the airline’s gate lice problem worse, not better — no matter how many funny videos it puts out.

The Airplane Seat: Narrow, Cramped — and About to Get Worse

You can see all the Flight Etiquette videos on JetBlue’s YouTube channel.

For more airline laughs, check out Patrick Stewart Hilariously Acts Out 5 Most Annoying Fliers.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Air travel ain’t what it used to be.

Between baggage fees, shrinking seats and shoddy service, flying makes many travelers pretty cranky these days — so why not take a look back at what life in the skies used to be like?

The following vintage airline commercials offer that trip back in time, although in some cases it seems like not much has changed. (Yes, even in the 70s and 80s fliers were bemoaning crowded airports and lack of service in economy class.) Have a look — and a laugh!

First up is a funny Southern Airways ad from the 1970s that lampoons the difference between first class and coach:

Peter Sellers plays out every cheesy (and sleazy) Italian stereotype in this 1970s ad for TWA:

I’m not sure anyone’s ever been so thrilled to land in Kansas City as this 1980s Eastern Air Lines passenger:

I’m cheating a little with this next one, which is from the mid-2000s and therefore doesn’t really count as a “vintage” commercial — but it too features a now-defunct airline (Continental):

Do you have a favorite airline commercial?

Patrick Stewart Hilariously Acts Out 5 Most Annoying Fliers
JetBlue Introduces Funny Flight Etiquette Videos

— written by Sarah Schlichter

jetblue plane in flightWe first got wind of the impending bad news last year, and now it’s come to pass: JetBlue will no longer include one free checked bag with the cost of all its flights.

The discount carrier has rolled out a new fare structure, effective today, that offers varying baggage and other fees depending on how much you pay for your flight. If you book the cheapest available fare category, known as Blue, you’ll have to pay $20 or $25 for your first checked bag on most itineraries (it varies based on where you pay it — Web check-in, kiosk or airport counter). The second bag costs $35 in this fare category.

If you pay a little more for the Blue Plus fare, you’ll get one checked bag free, with the second costing $35. If you want to bring two complimentary checked bags, you’ll have to pony up for either the Blue Flex or Mint fare. (The latter is only available on cross-country flights.)

You can still get a free checked bag in any fare category if you’re headed to one of the following destinations: Santo Domingo, Santiago, Port-au-Prince, Port of Spain, Kingston, Cartagena, Medellin, Bogota, Lima or Mexico City.

Other differences between the fare categories include cancellation and change fees, which are highest for Blue passengers, a little lower for Blue Plus and free for Blue Flex. The full fare chart is below (click to see a larger version):

jetblue fare chart

We did a few test searches to check out the fare differences between categories. On a flight between New York and Chicago, the Blue Plus fare was $15 more in each direction than the Blue fare, while the Blue Flex fare was $100 more each way than the cheapest option. That means it would actually be cheaper to book the Blue Plus fare than to buy the Blue fare and check a single bag.

When we changed the itinerary to San DiegoFort Lauderdale, however, that wasn’t the case; the difference was $30 – $31 each way between Blue and Blue Plus and $100 each way between Blue and Blue Flex.

7 Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

Southwest is now the only American airline that offers free checked bags to all passengers.

Will these changes make you more or less likely to fly JetBlue?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

credit cards money We’ve all tried to dodge the airlines’ ever-present fees at least once or twice — maybe you’ve overstuffed your carry-on so you didn’t have to check a bag, or packed your own headphones so you didn’t need to shell out five bucks for the ones offered in flight. But a British student recently went far beyond that, legally changing his name because it was less expensive than paying Ryanair’s fee to correct a booking error.

The Guardian reports that Adam Armstrong made the change after his girlfriend’s stepfather booked him a flight to Ibiza with the wrong surname. (“Her stepdad got my name from Facebook but I had put it as Adam West as a joke, because he was the actor who played Batman on TV,” Armstrong told the Guardian.) Ryanair wanted 220 GBP (about $337 USD) in administrative fees to change the name on the booking to match the one on Armstrong’s passport.

Armstrong balked at the cost, calling it “completely ridiculous,” and instead decided to change his name legally (at no charge) and expedite a new passport for 103 GBP (about $158 USD). Gotta admire his creativity!

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

Ryanair is hardly the only airline to charge steep fees for making changes to an existing booking. Delta charges anywhere from $200 to $450, depending on where you’re flying; American quotes a range of fees from $200 to $750(!) for any “voluntary change to ticket made prior to day of travel.” One notable exception: Southwest, which does charge any applicable fare difference for a rebooking but does not assess a separate administrative change fee.

Most airlines, including Ryanair, will give you a 24-hour grace period to correct errors.

In a statement published by the Guardian, Ryanair explains, “A name change fee is charged in order to discourage and prevent unauthorised online travel agents from ‘screenscraping’ Ryanair’s cheapest fares and reselling them on to unwitting consumers at hugely inflated costs.'”

10 Ways Air Travel Has Gone Downhill

Do you think the airlines’ change fees are fair? Share your thoughts in the comments.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

overhead bin airplane flight attendantAs part of the eternal struggle to speed up the process of getting fliers onto planes, Delta Air Lines is trying a new strategy: preloading carry-on bags for its passengers. According to USA Today, the carrier will be offering a complimentary Early Valet service on select flights this summer, which will involve having airline employees take passengers’ carry-ons at the gate and put them into the overhead bins nearest their assigned seats.

The airline’s hope is that its employees will be more efficient in loading the plane than passengers would, helping ensure a timelier departure. USA Today reports that the airline has previously tested this strategy and found “some reduction in boarding time.”

The theory makes sense. After all, how often have you seen fellow passengers holding up the line while they heave and ho to get weighty bags into the bin? And then there are the fliers who force others to find other spots for their bags because they put their rolling suitcases in sideways instead of wheels first, taking up twice as much space. Let’s face it: Airline employees are almost guaranteed to be better at loading a plane than we passengers are.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

The question, though, is whether the process of taking people’s bags at the gate will cancel out most of the time saved during the actual boarding procedure. Frequent flier expert Gary Leff, quoted in the USA Today article, also raises a good point: “‘This has the potential to come across as a nice, high-end service,’ Leff said, ‘but I’m skeptical that it will go mainstream’ because of labor costs.”

How do you think airlines could optimize the boarding process?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

intel science fair raymond wang winnerWhat would you give to feel less stuffy after your next flight? You may start to feel the difference soon, thanks to a 17-year-old high school junior from Canada. Raymond Wang recently won the top prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his innovative solution to reduce the spread of pathogens on airplanes, while promoting fresh air to passengers.

According to a story in the Washington Post, Wang began to think about disease transmission on airplanes after the ebola outbreak last year. Although ebola isn’t transmitted through the air, many other contagious diseases are, and this spurred his research into cabin airflow.

Current airflow is spread down and across the rows by “two, large turbulent swirls,” according to Wang in the Post article. With the addition of fin-shaped devices into a plane’s air inlets, airflow is redirected more efficiently to each passenger in what Wang calls a “personalized ventilation zone.” Check out a video simulation of the difference:

The cost-benefit ratio of Wang’s new airflow system is a no-brainer. Installing the fins would cost approximately $1,000 per plane with overnight installation, and is estimated to increase fresh air to the cabin by 190 percent — reducing the concentration of airborne germs and pathogens 55 times over.

For his idea, Wang took home a $75,000 cash prize and has filed for a patent. Let’s hope it’s put to good use.

Avoiding the Airplane Cold
18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling

— written by Brittany Chrusciel