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airlinesThis post is part of our “Airlines Behaving Badly” series, which chronicles the oft-wicked ways of the air travel industry.

I’m leaving on a trip this Sunday and for the first time in my life I packed early and I packed light. Save the toothbrush, I crossed the toiletry Ts and dotted all the iPad Is into my carry-on suitcase so I could spend the rest of the week anticipating my travels and not dreading packing. But wouldn’t you know it, three major airlines — American, Delta and United — have reduced the size of an acceptable carry-on yet again (it flew under the radar until recently). I am flying one of these lines, and of course when I measured my bag, roughly 24 X 15 X 9, it was too large. The new size regulation — apparently enacted by United in March but effective immediately — is 22 inches long by 14 inches wide and 9 inches high, skimming a collective 5 inches off of what was a perfectly fine carry-on bag just weeks ago, and rendering my treasured, nearly new (expensive) indigo suitcase totally useless against checked-bag fees.

Pinned to a new FAA regulation (according to this article on Airfarewatchdog.com), it’s curious that fellow airlines JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin America and Frontier have maintained their 24 X 16 X 10-inch carry-on allocations.

Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Upon further review, George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, reflects that although the changes are subtle, they are being strictly enforced by the TSA and not as clearly explained by the airlines. The standard of a 45-inch maximum outside linear dimension is made null if the dimensions exceed any of the newly specified maximums. So in other words, 21 X 14 X 10 may meet the 45-inches-total guideline, but not the new 9-inches-high guideline. Therefore, the risk of having to re-pack, being sent to the back of the check-in line and potentially missing your flight is a real one — all traced back to a difference of one inch.

Whether it’s a regulation based in research, a ploy to cash in on more checked bags or simply a way to keep travelers on their toes, it’s exhausting keeping up with all the policy updates. I was finally ahead in the travel race, only to be handed a penalty card.

Have you encountered any trouble at the check-in counter lately? Vent about misguided measurements in the comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

American Airlines seat chartWhen checking in for an American Airlines flight last week, I noticed that I hadn’t been given a seat assignment, and all that remained were for-fee options, the least expensive of which would have set me back $27. I was confirmed on the flight and knew that if I held off until the day of departure, I’d likely be given the more expensive seat for no charge.

That was exactly what happened, but what didn’t escape my notice during the online check-in process was the description of what, exactly, one would receive for his or her extra $27:

“Easy access to overhead bins.” Golly, that’s just swell, but what does it mean? Do I get to stow my carry-on before the other passengers, thereby eliminating the need for me to gate-check my bag? Do I have access to a special stepstool to help me reach the overhead bin? Or, better yet, am I entitled to the services of a baggage butler who will load my stuff into the bin for me? I mean, seriously, is this really giving me any sort of advantage?

“A seat with standard legroom.” Uh … did you say standard? Heck, who wouldn’t be impressed by something as compelling as “standard.” So, what you’re telling me is that I’m getting the same amount of legroom as everyone else who didn’t pay $27? Forgive me if my expectation of more for, well, more is presumptuous, but something doesn’t quite add up here.

How to Score the Best Airplane Seat

“A streamlined experience at the airport.” I’m sorry, but unless this means I get to arrive a half hour before takeoff and bypass security, it’s not a streamlined experience.


“Moveable armrest.” Ok, this just seals the deal. Who knew armrests could move? Mind. Blown.

I thought perhaps I was misunderstanding something about how great these upcharge seats really are. An attempt to contact the airline for an explanation of the aforementioned “perks” was met with a lovely 20-minute wait on hold, after which I hung up.

Do you pay extra for “special” seats when you fly? Have you found them to actually be “special”? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

dog in carrier When I moved back to the United States from Romania, where I’d been living for two and a half years, I brought home a new husband and, just as importantly, our cat. We’d rescued her from an animal shelter two years before and there was no way we were leaving her behind. So we jumped through all the hoops presented to us — finding an FAA-compliant crate outside of the U.S., getting our cat micro-chipped, having a vet create a pet passport (basically just a record of her health and vaccines) — before my husband crated her up one November morning and brought her with him to the airport for his Lufthansa flights from Bucharest to Frankfurt and then Frankfurt to New York City.

Fourteen hours later my husband and cat arrived safely at JFK. It never really occurred to me that he would land safely and she wouldn’t. But after reading about a recent investigation by NBC Bay Area, I’m counting my lucky stars it turned out so well.

Turns out lots of animals don’t make it. Most stories don’t get into the news, but some do — like the case of former model Maggie Rizer. Back in September 2012, her 2-year-old golden retriever died during a flight from the East Coast to San Francisco.

Perhaps the most famous of all mistreated pets was Jack, the Norwegian forest cat that disappeared in JFK airport after an American Airlines baggage handler dropped his crate. Though he eventually turned up after falling through the ceiling in a customs area, he was so sick and dehydrated that he had to be put down.

Sadly, these stories are not as uncommon as we’d like to think. According to the NBC Bay Area investigation, 302 animals have died, been injured or disappeared while in the care of commercial airlines over a six-year span. The most common cause of death as determined by the airlines was “unknown.” Other common causes — again, as determined by the airlines themselves — were pre-existing medical conditions, escapes from the kennels, self-infliction and natural deaths.

The investigation even revealed which airlines have the worst record. Delta Airlines saw the most tragic outcomes, followed by Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Continental and United (those last two are now one single entity).

Traveling with Pets

So, does knowing all this make me think twice about flying my cat in the future? You bet it does! What’s worse than knowing that my animal may not be safe in an airline’s care is reading about how the airlines do everything in their power to deny any responsibility for the deaths. Going forward, if I can’t drive to a destination with my cat, then she’s just going to have to fly coach with me.

Have you ever flown your pet somewhere? What was your experience like? And do you think airlines have a responsibility to get your pet to their ultimate destination safe and sound? Weigh in below.

– written by Dori Saltzman

american airlines new liveryAfter months of rumors and speculation, American Airlines and US Airways officially declared yesterday that the two carriers plan to merge into the country’s largest airline.

It’s the latest of several merger announcements over the past few years in an airline industry that continues to contract. Delta and Northwest joined forces in 2008, and United absorbed Continental in 2010. After American Airlines and US Airways become a single carrier, to be named American, the U.S. will be left with only three major legacy carriers. And don’t forget Southwest Airlines, which is currently in the process of assimilating AirTran’s flights and services after their merger in 2011.

Does Your Flight Attendant Hate You?

Airline mergers typically lead to less competition, higher fares and plenty of glitches as the carriers try to integrate two different operating systems. (Remember the computer problems that stranded some United fliers last year?) Elite fliers will also want to keep a close eye on their miles to be sure they’re credited correctly when the two programs are integrated.

How do you feel about the American/US Airways merger — excited? Worried? Indifferent? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

jetblue food truck new york cityOn top of decimating houses and deluging city streets, Hurricane Sandy temporarily upended what we travelers take for granted: the ability to hop in a car or plane and go. But while that “right” has been more or less restored for most, many New York and New Jersey residents are still reeling (yesterday’s nor’easter didn’t help matters). Thankfully, along with an outpouring of aid from individuals and the expected charitable heavyweights, a number of popular travel brands have jumped in to help, some leveraging their leisure offerings in creative ways.

Last week, non-legacy favorite JetBlue partnered with NYC food trucks to offer free meals and snacks to hard hit residents of Staten Island, the Rockaways and Hoboken. The airline says thousands of locals were offered bites from mobile purveyors of grilled cheese, pizza, Lebanese specialties and cupcakes. JetBlue is also matching all donations to the Red Cross up to $100,000, and touting frequent flier miles as a bonus incentive. Those who give can earn six TrueBlue points for every $1 they donate by November 30.

Sandy Response: Which Travel Companies Stood Out?

Hip “for rent by owner” site Airbnb has partnered with the city of New York in an effort to offer free housing for residents displaced by Sandy. Several hundred local hosts have offered up their couches and spare rooms. Airbnb uses a mutual verification process — owner and potential renter must meet virtually and the owner always has final approval. (Renters and rent-ees can be both be “reviewed” and Airbnb cautions never to rent unless you’re completely confident in the occupant.) Though no money is changing hands, hosts are still covered by Airbnb’s guarantee. For those who can afford to shell out a bit for their temporary digs, there’s also a list of “discounted for Sandy” spots.

Toilet Paper Tussle at the Airbnb: How I Survived a Homestay

American Airlines is using its Web space and social platforms to promote the efforts of the American Red Cross — and throwing in some bonus frequent flier miles for good measure. Through November 30, 2012, AAdvantage members can earn a one-time award of 250 AAdvantage bonus miles for a minimum $50 donation, or 500 AAdvantage bonus miles for a donation of $100 or more to the American Red Cross.

Have a favorite travel brand you think deserves kudos? Share it in the comments.

– written by Dan Askin

tablet computer wi-fiSo many of us spend our lives connected via the Internet. We earn our wages and pay our bills online. With whatever money is left, we shop online. We stay connected to family and friends. We read our news, our books and magazines on electronic devices. We share photos, ideas and snarky comics via social media.

You’d think travel would be the one time we go off the grid, but it’s usually not possible. Travel is often work-related, requiring the posting of content and the reading of emails. We may leave family behind who we have to check in on while we’re away. And a few of us — not naming any names — are addicted to electronics. We panic when there’s no Wi-Fi available. And we don’t like to pay for it.

Yes, Virgin America offered free in-flight Wi-Fi last holiday season, and perhaps will again. And there have been a few promotions where Wi-Fi was offered free or discounted, but for the most part, we pay. When Internet service is provided by Gogo, as with AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, United and Virgin America, it costs $4.94 to $19.95 for mobile devices (smartphones, tables and e-readers) and $11 to $49 for computer devices (laptops and netbooks). JetBlue and Southwest each have their own Internet service. Southwest’s is not yet widely available, but its free portal contains content such as a flight tracker, shopping and games, all at no charge. Internet access beyond that is $5 all day, per device.

Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas

Paying for Wi-Fi annoys us , even if it’s only $5. We have hotspot entitlement syndrome. And we’re not alone. When we asked on Facebook if you’d use Wi-Fi if it was offered in air for free, few of you would take a pass.

Hilary Huffman Sommer said, “I would definitely use it, especially when traveling for work or when work intrudes on my leisure travel.”


Gregory Ellis also would log on to work. “Nothing else to do while in those busses with wings,” he wrote.

“Absolutely,” wrote Michele Cherry. She admitted to the amount of time she can kill on Facebook and that she can’t sleep on airplanes. And she already pays for Wi-Fi on international flights or longer domestic ones.

Tips to Sleep on Planes

Ofelia Gutierrez and Marcia Cloutier also already pay for Wi-Fi, so getting it for free would be a bonus.

“Beats listening to my husband snore,” Vicki Hannah Gelfo explained.

Not everyone is leaping at that free bandwidth. Saadia Shafati Shamsie would prefer airlines not offer free Wi-Fi; she’d be too tempted.

And Deb Crosby won’t give up her sleep and reading time while flying.

One more naysayer to continued connectivity is Lavida Rei. “I would prefer if everyone stayed off the grid and off my nerves while in flight,” she wrote.

We’ll take that under advisement, Lavida, and we’ll tap lightly when answering that e-mail.

– written by Jodi Thompson

overhead bin airplaneOn my last flight, the gate agent announced that anyone in boarding zone five with a roll-aboard carry-on should go ahead and bring it up to the desk to be gate checked, as there wouldn’t be enough overhead bin space for it on the plane. I wasn’t particularly surprised; it seems that every time I fly, the boarding process turns into a chaotic mess of passengers stumbling down the aisle with their hefty carry-ons, searching row after row for a precious sliver of overhead bin space. (And don’t even get me started on the de-boarding process, when all the people who stowed bags 10 rows behind their own have to fight their way against traffic to be reunited with their possessions.)

Fortunately, the airlines — who created this problem in the first place by imposing fees on checked baggage — are responding by making overhead bins larger. According to a report from the Associated Press, four U.S. airlines are planning or have already begun making changes to the overhead bins on select aircraft: American Airlines, Delta, United and US Airways. These updates include more spacious bins as well as new bin doors with a more generous outward curve, allowing bags to be stowed wheels first rather than sideways.

Jet manufacturer Boeing is also tweaking the bin designs on its new planes to better accommodate standard roll-aboard bags.

Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

On the one hand, it’s about time. Having effectively instituted penalties for checking bags, the airlines ought to be prepared to accommodate more carry-ons. On the other hand, if fliers know the bins are getting bigger, will they just bring more stuff? (According to the AP story, the airlines are going to be more vigilant about policing the size of carry-ons — so it may not be an issue.) Plus, the ballooning bins are just more dispiriting evidence of what we already knew: that those pesky baggage fees are definitely here to stay.

Hate gate checking your bag? Here’s how to prepare in case it happens to you: A Bag Inside a Bag.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane skyI never thought I’d say this, but maybe — just maybe — those extra baggage fees are worth it after all. According to a report by CNN, in 2011 the airline industry’s rate of lost luggage was the lowest it’s ever been. Last year also saw the lowest-ever incidence of passengers being involuntarily bumped from their scheduled flights.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, which has collected luggage data for 23 years and bumping data for 16, released last year’s stats for the nation’s airlines on Tuesday.

So what does this mean for air travelers? The quick and dirty is that, overall, airlines reported an on-time arrival rate of about 79.6 percent, just a smidge better than 2010 (79.8 percent). Industry-wide instances of mishandled baggage clocked in at about 3.39 cases per 1,000 passengers (down from 3.51 in 2010), and involuntary bumps came in 0.81 occurrences per 10,000 passengers (down from 1.09 in 2010) — not too shabby.

Find Cheap Airfare for Your Next Flight

As for the top-performing airline, AirTran did the best in the luggage-handling department, with just 1.63 reports of lost or damaged luggage per 1,000 passengers. Hawaiian Airlines, blessed with good weather year-round in most of its destination cities, came out on top in the flight delay sweepstakes: nearly 93 percent of its flights arrived on time in 2011. In terms of bumping, JetBlue had the lowest rate, with just 0.01 involuntary bumps per 10,000 fliers.

I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, great. But which airlines performed the worst?” American Eagle, American Airlines’ regional carrier, walked away with the highest rate of mishandled baggage, with 7.32 reported cases of lost or damaged luggage per 1,000 passengers. Then there’s JetBlue, which had the lowest percentage (73.3 percent) of on-time flight arrivals. And Mesa Airlines, another regional operator, took the title for most denied boardings in 2011, with 2.27 involuntary bumps per 10,000 passengers.

The Top Five Airlines for In-Flight Entertainment

What do you think? Did you have a particularly good experience flying in 2011?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

airplane seatsA couple of weeks ago, we highlighted The Most Bizarre Travel Stories of 2011 and invited readers to share their own tales of travels gone awry. You responded with a raft of uncanny anecdotes about everything from holy rollers in Nigeria to a harrowing van ride in Rome.

But our favorite story came from Christina S., who shared a tale of a truly “breath-taking” flight to Chicago. Christina has won a set of packing cubes and a pair of SuperSmartTag luggage tags. Her winning story is below. (Editor’s Note: This comment has been edited for length. To read the full version, see Christina’s original comment.)

“We boarded American Airlines flight 547 in a relatively orderly fashion. Our flight pushed back from the gate a few minutes early, but then we stopped and sat on the tarmac for a few minutes before the pilot came on the intercom system and said, ‘I love working for American Airlines, I do. I love flying. Except on days like this. We’re getting a message from the control center that there’s an issue with our air-conditioning unit, which also controls the cabin pressurization system. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to pull back into the gate to let maintenance take a look at it.’

“They put the entertainment system on, because apparently some people want to watch ’30 Rock’ at 6 a.m., & flight attendants even came through the aisles to hand out water while we were waiting. A little while later, maintenance had finished up their fixing & we were on our way. Before taking off, the captain said that we would be flying at a lower altitude — only 28,000 feet — as is required when maintenance is done on the cabin pressurization system. My husband commented to me that he hated to fly on planes that had maintenance issues worked on, to which I responded, ‘Well, if you’re going to have an in-flight emergency, having the oxygen masks drop is probably the best one to have since it’s not that big of a deal & it’s not like the plane is crashing.’

“Psychic?

“Perhaps.

“Soon, our flight was on its way, cruising over to Chicago at 28,000 feet. The flight attendants were about halfway done with drink service & I was snoozing on my husband’s shoulder. Some yelling & loud voices woke me up. A woman across the aisle was having a medical emergency. The flight attendants hopped to it in a controlled, professional manner. Emergency bags were fetched. Giant oxygen tanks appeared out of nowhere. A doctor was summoned (a young man in a hoody responded). After the woman had come to from being out cold with the supplemental oxygen, the woman next to her fainted. Then someone else complained about not feeling well. Meanwhile, my husband & I were half watching the situation/half trying not to be nosy. I said to him, ‘I bet we divert, this seems like a big medical issue.’ Almost simultaneously, the flight attendant came on the intercom & said, ‘There’s a problem with the cabin pressurization. We’re going to drop the [oxygen] masks.’

“Once our masks were on, I looked at my husband & we both laughed. What kind of adventure had we gotten ourselves into? Here’s the Twitpic seen ’round the world of the masks down (it was even picked up by a U.K. newspaper!).

The Worst Airplane Horror Stories

“By the time the flight attendants got around to make sure everyone had their masks on & to check to see that everyone was okay, we were below 13,000 feet, the level where supplemental oxygen isn’t necessary. I took my mask off & could breathe normally. The pilot announced that we were diverting to the airport in Dayton, Ohio.

“We flew at a low altitude for a while & landed normally. As we taxied to the gate, we saw a fire truck & ambulance speeding across the tarmac toward our plane. I commented that it was surely the most exciting thing that had ever happened to these emergency responders. They boarded the plane (the firefighters in metallic, fire-resistant suits) & attended to those who needed medical attention. Once those folks were off the plane, the rest of us got off like normal.

“It was definitely the weirdest, craziest travel experience of 2011 — and probably one of the craziest travel experiences I’ve ever had!”

Can you top this story? Share your most bizarre travel tale in the comments!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Alec BaldwinAir travel, as we all know, is stressful. Add alcohol, fear and a celebrity or two, and you’ve got the makings of an industry that churns out more dramatic stories than Jackie Collins.

You’ve likely heard about the latest flight-induced fracas: a tit for tat between Alec Baldwin and the recently-bankrupt American Airlines. On Tuesday, Baldwin, star of the NBC sitcom “30 Rock,” was booted off a plane for refusing to turn off his iPhone. The actor was caught up in a game of “Words with Friends,” which he continued to play as the plane sat at the gate, despite requests from cabin crew to turn off all electronic devices.

What Not to Do at the Airport

Yesterday, American Airlines posted a statement on its Facebook page in response to the hullabaloo. The airline elected not to mention Baldwin by name, lending its scold, er, statement a passive-aggressive tone: “The passenger ultimately stood up (with the seat belt light still on for departure) and took his phone into the plane’s lavatory. He slammed the lavatory door so hard, the cockpit crew heard it and became alarmed, even with the cockpit door closed and locked.” American goes on to accuse “the passenger” of verbally abusing the airline crew and using foul language.

Baldwin released a less ambiguous response, criticizing the airline in a letter on HuffPost Travel, “A Farewell to Common Sense, Style, and Service on American Airlines.” In the essay, which was published yesterday, the actor offers an apology to the other passengers who were on the flight, but derides the airline industry for sub-par service “that would make Howard Hughes red-faced.” Baldwin argues that the airline’s shortage of common sense and customer service was the catalyst to his aggression.

We agree with Baldwin on one point: anyone who’s paid $30 for the privilege of carting a carry-on bag knows there’s an unmistakable demand for common sense in the airline industry. But is the Federal Aviation Administration’s safety rule regarding electronic devices on planes the place to start? John Deiner tackled this issue on our blog earlier this year, writing about his own encounter with a Baldwin-esque passenger. Deiner became nervous when his airplane seatmate refused to turn off his cell phone before takeoff, and subsequently sought out the answer to that industry-old question: Is it really necessary for passengers to turn off our phones and computers during takeoff and landing? Well, according to the FAA, yes. Writes Deiner:

“So what sort of danger were we in? Very little, most likely. I checked the Web site of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which prohibits the use of cell phones on flights. In 2007, the agency considered lifting the ban, but didn’t. Here’s why: ‘The FCC determined that the technical information provided by interested parties in response to the proposal was insufficient to determine whether in-flight use of wireless devices on aircraft could cause harmful interference to wireless networks on the ground. … In addition to the FCC’s rules, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits in-flight use of wireless devices because of potential interference to the aircraft’s navigation and communication systems.’”

There’s a slight chance that cell phone waves could cause complications with plane functionality. But just how slight is slight? Deiner cites a Discover Channel “MythBuster” episode that put the odds of such a happening at one in a million. Let’s be honest: If there was a bona fide probability that cell phone waves could take down a plane, we wouldn’t be permitted to bring them onboard in the first place. Or, at least, we’d have to dismantle our devices and carry them through security in clear, quart-size zip-top bags.

When our common sense tells us that a game of “Words with Friends” won’t harm a thing, but the cabin crew is instructing us to power down, should we listen — or keep placing tiles onto our virtual game boards? Your answer ultimately depends on whether you’ve joined Team Baldwin or Team AA in this latest industry feud. Tell us where you stand in the comments.


– written by Caroline Costello