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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Catch up on the travel stories you may have missed over the past week.

airport security bin


The TSA Is a Waste of Money That Doesn’t Save Lives and Might Actually Cost Them
Vox makes a provocative case against the beleaguered TSA, which has been under fire in recent weeks for extra-long lines. Not only does the TSA not ensure our safety, the author argues, but it actually causes more deaths (because travelers elect to drive instead of fly to avoid the hassle of security, leading to more road accidents).

The World’s Most Polite Country?
BBC Travel investigates the Japanese concept of omotenashi, a combination of “exquisite politeness” and “a desire to maintain harmony and avoid conflict.” From toilet seats that spring up when you enter a bathroom to people wearing masks to protect others from catching their colds, politeness is a Japanese way of life.

EasyJet Develops a Vibrating Smart Shoe to Help You Navigate a New City
European discount airline won’t just fly you from one city to another, reports Travel + Leisure — it’s also trying to get you from one neighborhood to another using vibrating sneakers that tell you when to turn. The shoes, called “Sneakairs,” sync up to your smartphone to help direct you with GPS.

Malaria Vaccine Protects Half Who Try It
NBC News reports that an experimental new malaria vaccine protected 55 percent of the volunteers who tested it — which beats out the performance of the current vaccine on the market, which protects just 30 percent. This could benefit future travelers to malaria-stricken regions, but the new vaccine is still years away.

Life on the Other End of an Airline Reservations Line
An AFAR writer got a chance to work as a customer service agent for Delta Air Lines, and discovered the most efficient way to raise a complaint, what the agent can see about you when your call pops up on his or her screen, and how much power a phone agent actually has.

This Is 2016. Why Can’t We Still Book Specific Rooms in a Hotel?
Skift raises a good question: We can book a certain seat on a plane, so why can’t we choose our own hotel room? The answer is that we can … sometimes … and that there are a couple of sites out there that are working to make this capability more widely available.

How Travel Insurance Saved My Life
If you skip buying travel insurance on some trips, you may change your mind after reading this piece from Conde Nast Traveler. After coming down with dengue fever on a trip to Vietnam, the author didn’t get adequate medical treatment until her travel insurance company stepped in to advocate on her behalf.

In the face of government warnings against travel to Iran, these travelers show another side of the country in this thought-provoking video.


10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security
16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

— written by Sarah Schlichter

After taking a few weeks off for the holidays, we’re back with another round-up of all the travel news you need to know.

uber steering wheelUber Is Thinking of Getting into the Travel Business
Uber has already revolutionized the way many of us travel, and the company isn’t done yet, judging by a recent patent. Business Insider explains how a new feature called “Uber Travel” would allow the company to find you flights and accommodations, as well as recommend the best time to call an Uber based on when you’re scheduled to land at an airport.

Hilton Wants You to Pay $50 for What?
As if we needed more fees in our life! Time reports that Hilton is testing out a new program that charges a $50 fee for any cancellation, even if it’s far in advance of your stay. (Wait till the day of arrival and you’ll pay for a full night.) The charge is designed to discourage travelers from using websites and apps that hunt for price drops and rebook them at a lower rate.

Hidden Hotel Fees

Zika: Coming to America Through Mosquitoes, Travel and Sex
In other bad news, there’s a new virus spreading around the world, according to Forbes. Known as zika, the illness is related to yellow fever and dengue, and was first discovered in Uganda. These days it’s heading northward from Brazil, transmitted mainly via mosquitoes. (Sexual transmission is suspected but not proven.) The best prevention method is to use mosquito nets and bug spray when traveling in affected areas.

The TSA May Now Deny You the Right to a Pat-Down
Those of us who feel uncomfortable with the TSA’s full-body scanners have always had the option of choosing a pat-down by a security officer instead — until now. The Department of Homeland Security released a statement last month giving the TSA the right to make a full-body scan mandatory “as warranted by security considerations,” reports Frommer’s.

Who Are the World’s Safest Airlines for 2016?
Nervous fliers won’t want to miss this annual list from AirlineRatings.com, which highlights the 20 safest airlines in the world. And the winner is … Australia-based Qantas, which tops the charts for the third year in a row. Several U.S. airlines made the grade, including American, Alaska, Hawaiian and United.

These 38 Airlines Have the Lowest Airline Safety Ratings
And here’s the counterpoint: the worst-rated carriers on AirlineRatings.com, as rounded up by Travel + Leisure. The good news is that you’ve probably never heard of any of these airlines, so you’re not too likely to fly them. (TransNusa? Daallo Airlines? Anyone?!)

Fear of Flying

We wrap up this week’s edition with a short film from western Mongolia, which captures the day-to-day life of the nomadic Kazakh people, including the fascinating way they train eagles to hunt for game.


— 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

prohibited items sign at airportAt a time when more than three ounces of liquid could get you into trouble with the TSA, it seems absurd that loaded guns are legal at many airports throughout the United States.

Earlier this month, as reported by Yahoo! Travel, a man brought a loaded semiautomatic rifle into the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta in what seemed to be a cry for attention when he was there to drop his daughter off for a flight. According to laws in Georgia, he was within his rights to do so, but that didn’t stop police from questioning him or travelers who spotted the weapon from complaining about him.

According to website Florida Carry, 44 U.S. states allow individuals with permits to carry loaded guns into unrestricted airport areas. It’s acceptable as long as nobody attempts to take them through security. (Individual municipalities and airports have the authority to put more strict regulations in place to ban firearms from airports completely.)

What Not to Do at the Airport

A law is one thing, but good judgement is another, particularly at a sensitive place like an airport where edgy travelers — including children — can be easily spooked by that sort of display. Do you think an airport is the place to make a political statement by bringing a gun? Be sure to share your thoughts below.

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

tsa airport security lineFlying is a process. Getting to the airport. Checking bags. Removing shoes and laptops and toiletries and shuffling along through security checkpoints. Although I sometimes question whether all this adds up to better security or just security theater, it’s nice to think that the TSA agents are looking out for our safety by screening passengers. But who’s screening the TSA agents?

According to the TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Committee, it would cost too much and be too logistically difficult to do complete security checks on all of its employees, and full scans wouldn’t help that much anyway since such screenings are “incapable of determining a person’s motivations, attitudes and capabilities to cause harm.”

But wouldn’t that also be true of the system’s effectiveness when scanning passengers — people who don’t have clearances that allow them access to restricted areas?

Apparently the issue of restricted access is being addressed, as well. CNN reports that the number of access points to these areas is being reduced. TSA employees will also have to undergo background checks once every two years and go through the same security screenings as everyone else when traveling as airline passengers themselves. Employees are also subject to random, unannounced screenings, and increased surveillance of baggage handling and cargo areas has been recommended to combat theft of passenger items by employees.

Airport Security Q&A
10 Things Not to Do at Airport Security

What do you think? Is the TSA doing enough to police its own? Leave your comments below.

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

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

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

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

eye retina scannerUSA Today ran an article yesterday about changes being made at Dallas’ Love Field airport to bring it closer to offering what the International Air Transport Association (IATA) calls “the checkpoint of the future.” The changes include the installation of 500 hi-def security cameras capable of tracking passenger movements from the parking garages to the gates and even onto the tarmac.

As part of the system, which is intended to allow passengers to move virtually non-stop from curb to gate, fliers would be identified by biometric measures (either iris or fingerprint scanning) and would pass through screening tunnels (a la the film “Total Recall”) where they’d undergo electronic scans capable of detecting metal objects, explosives, liquids and more.

The object of such a futuristic checkpoint is to be faster, less intrusive and easier to get through.

Now, I like the idea of getting through security faster. Taking off my shoes and taking my laptop out of its cover are annoying, especially when hundreds of people are doing the same.

According to the USA Today article, the FAA projects that the number of people flying in the U.S. will nearly double over the next 20 years to 1.2 billion. That’s a whole lotta time spent taking off shoes and belts, checking through pockets for change and finding out at the last minute that no, ma’am, you can’t bring that bottle of water through security with you.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

Here’s another telling statistic from the article — before September 11, 2011, 350 people passed through checkpoints each hour. A November 2012 survey of 142 airports found that on average only 149 people now make it through each hour.

But the question is: How much am I willing to give up to get through security faster?

Do I really want hundreds of Big Brother-style cameras tracking my every step from the moment I get out of my car? Do I want my fingerprints or iris pattern in a computer record? I’m not really sure I do.

What do you think?

— written by Dori Saltzman

elderly woman suitcase airportOlder travelers at select U.S. airports will no longer have to take off their shoes at the security checkpoint as of Monday, March 19. It’s part of a new set of screening procedures that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is testing for fliers age 75 and up.

The new measures go beyond just leaving your shoes on. Older travelers will also be permitted to make a second pass through the full body scanner if any anomalies are spotted (as opposed to submitting immediately to a pat-down), and will be able to go through the machine without removing light outerwear. The TSA says screeners will also rely more heavily on explosives trace detection.

Senior Travel Deals

Of course, there’s no guarantee that older travelers won’t face a pat-down or have to take off their shoes: “These changes in protocol for passengers 75 and older could ultimately reduce — though not eliminate — pat-downs that would have otherwise been conducted to resolve anomalies,” says the TSA statement. “If anomalies are detected during security screening that cannot be resolved through other procedures, passengers may be required to remove their shoes to complete the screening process.”

The new screening procedures for seniors initially will only apply in a limited number of security lanes at the following four airports: Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Denver International (DEN), Orlando International (MCO) and Portland International (PDX). You won’t need to show ID to prove your age, says the TSA; instead, officers will “make a visual assessment” to decide which passengers are eligible for the new screening procedures.

The modified screening procedures, which are similar to those instituted in the fall for children age 12 and under, are meant to help the TSA focus its efforts on more risky travelers. To learn more, see our Airport Security Q&A.

— written by Sarah Schlichter