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The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

Check out our favorite travel reads of the week.

couple on vacation


Every Month, This Company Chooses a Random Employee to Send on a Two-Week Vacation
Okay, how do we land a job at this company? Travel + Leisure reports that The Motley Fool, a financial services firm, chooses one employee each month to take a spontaneous two-week vacation — complete with $1,500 of spending money.

Your Underwhelming International Holiday Photos
We love galleries of glossy destination photos as much as the next travel addict, but there’s something both funny and delightful about this roundup of lousy vacation pictures from the Guardian — complete with dismal gray skies, charmless parking lots and even an unwelcome eight-legged hotel guest. (Shudder.)

How Andy Steves Is Redefining His Dad’s Travel Guides for a New Generation
Fans of Rick Steves’ comprehensive Europe guidebooks will be glad to find out that his son Andy is carrying on the family business. Conde Nast Traveler checks in with the junior Steves to find out what’s on his bucket list, why print guidebooks are still relevant and what advice he’d give travelers before their first trip abroad.

Life With the Irish Travellers Reveals a Bygone World
A National Geographic photographer delves into the isolated culture of the Irish Travellers, an ethnic minority with an unwritten language, a nomadic way of life and a set of rigid gender roles. Her photographs offer a look into this rarely glimpsed world.

There Are Still Tons of Cheap Flights to Cuba You Can Book Right Now
On August 31, JetBlue became the first airline in more than 50 years to fly a regularly scheduled commercial flight between the U.S. and Cuba. If you’re looking to hop on one of these flights yourself, Time reports that there are numerous affordable alternatives on flights this fall, including October offerings from $205 roundtrip with taxes.

Returning to Everest: Trekking to Base Camp after the 2015 earthquake
A Lonely Planet writer checks out the scene in Nepal following the tragic earthquake of last year. She discovers that while some damage remains en route to the Everest Base Camp, the villagers along the way are eager to welcome back tourists.

Hong Kong’s Secret Night Meal
Foodies, take note — in Hong Kong it’s customary to eat not three meals a day, but four, reports BBC. Siu yeh is a nighttime snack served between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

This week’s video is part of a new ad campaign celebrating the “world’s greatest fliers,” who supposedly fly American Airlines. Those of you who’ve flown American — do you agree that your fellow passengers meet these lofty standards?


11 Things Not to Do on a Plane
12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Check out the most interesting travel stories you may have missed this week.

american airlines planes


American Airlines Just Made a Big Change Most Passengers Will Hate
American Airlines has fallen in line with the other major carriers in the U.S. with the latest update to its frequent flier program, reports Yahoo! Finance. Travelers will now accumulate miles based not on the distance flown but on how much they paid for their ticket.

Why I Quit My Job to Travel the World
Have a laugh at this satirical essay from the New Yorker, which pokes fun at trust fund kids who drop everything to travel around the world. “Of course, this ‘no reservations’ life style isn’t for everyone,” writes the fictional narrator. “Sometimes it’s difficult to get even one bar of cell service, which makes Instagramming more gelato a real struggle.”

The Latest Travel Luxury: Not Going
Quartz reports that there’s been an increase in the purchase of “cancel anytime” travel insurance this year, probably in response to concerns about terrorism and the Zika virus. This type of coverage costs a little more but gives travelers peace of mind by allowing them to back out of their trip for any reason without losing money.

The Moroccan Scam That Wasn’t
BBC Travel details an encounter with Moroccan locals that could have turned dangerous — would you hop in a car with two strangers to drive into the desert after dark? — but instead turned into a memorable evening at an Arab-Berber wedding.

Had a Rental Car Accident? Here’s What You Need to Know
Conde Nast Traveler digs into the thorny issue of rental car coverage. Just how much does your credit card protect you in case of an accident? Turns out it might be less than you think.

Common Taxi Scams, and How to Avoid Them
USA Today identifies seven ways you could get ripped off on a cab ride, from broken meters to drivers claiming they don’t have enough change.

Get a glimpse of Bali’s healing energy in this week’s featured video.


10 Best Indonesia Experiences
Money Safety Tips for Travelers

— written by Sarah Schlichter

hong kongRead up on the latest from around the travel world with our weekly roundup.

10 Places It’s Cheaper to Fly to in 2016
If you’re dreaming of a trip to Hong Kong this year, you’re in luck — that city tops Kayak’s list of the top travel destinations for airfare savings in 2016, reports Time. It’s 26 percent cheaper to fly there this year than it was last year. Also on the list: Chicago, Beijing, Bangkok and Athens, among others.

The “Boring” Cities Worth a Second Look
Eric Weiner at BBC Travel argues that the cities we often think of as “boring” — such as Geneva, Switzerland and Cleveland, Ohio — actually have a lot to recommend them. You go in with no expectations, so you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised. And boring places have their own charm that flashier places don’t: “When you relinquish the spectacular, you are rewarded with the quieter joy of the ordinary,” writes Weiner.

No Vacation Nation: 41% of Americans Didn’t Take a Day off in 2015
Well, this is depressing. Nearly 41 percent of U.S. respondents to a recent poll went all of 2015 without taking a single vacation day, reports Skift, and another 17 percent took fewer than five days off. Clearly, more Americans need to read that survey that says travel makes us happier.

Travel Broadens the Mind, But Can It Alter the Brain?
The Guardian looks at the benefits of studying or living abroad, which include being more creative, open-minded, independent and emotionally stable. The article also notes that coping with the challenges of travel keeps our minds sharp. (We always knew travelers were smarter…)

The Loophole That Could Save You Money on the Cost of a Flight
The U.K.’s Daily Mail has unearthed an interesting tip for saving money on airfare. If you’re planning to take internal flights within a foreign country, you’ll sometimes pay less if you purchase those flights while you’re in that country — or if you pretend to be from that country when you book.

Department of Transportation: Pilots Are Forgetting How to Fly Manually
Nervous fliers should probably give this article a miss. Popular Mechanics reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation is concerned that an over-reliance on automation has made modern-day pilots less proficient in manual flying — and more likely to make errors in situations that demand it.

Lufthansa Will Change How You Check Bags in 2016
For once, some good airline news! Conde Nast Traveler reports that Lufthansa will be introducing digital tags for checked bags this year, which will allow the airline to track the location of your suitcase and keep you notified via an app. In case of delays, you can tell the app where you want your bag delivered once it arrives.

Big Changes Coming for American’s Reward Program
Aaaaannd now we’re back to lousy airline news. The Dallas Morning News alerts AAdvantage members about coming changes to American Airlines’ rewards program, which include more limited dates for booking off-peak tickets, more miles required to book trips in some markets, and a new way of earning miles based on price paid instead of miles traveled.

For your visual eye candy of the week, we travel to Ireland with this dreamy, cinematic video:


Photos: 12 Best Ireland Experiences
10 Things Not to Do When Checking a Bag

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

a row of airplane seatsThings in the United States are generally bigger than in the rest of the world. Cars are bigger, meal portions larger; in general, everything is supersized. Except when it comes to airplane legroom.

Anyone who has recently flown in economy on a U.S.-based airline is painfully aware of the lack of space between one seat and the next — both next to you as well as in front of you. At just 5′ 2″ I often feel cramped and squished into my seat. Putting my bag underneath the seat in front of me makes it even worse, robbing me of what little room I have to stretch my legs.

This lack of space is pervasive on U.S.-based airlines. So when CN Traveler published an article called “Which Airline Has the Most Legroom? A Complete Guide” my attention was piqued. Could I discover which of the major airlines I use have the most legroom? Even if it meant driving the extra hour to JFK airport rather than Newark, I’d do it for an extra inch of space!

Get the Best Airplane Seat

Reading the article brought good and bad news.

The bad news: Unless I’m prepared to move to Canada, I’m just going to have to get used to less legroom. Air Canada offers the largest pitch (the distance from the headrest of one seat to the headrest behind it) range of all the airlines, coming in at 29 to35 inches. JetBlue is actually better; even though the maximum amount of legroom you’ll find on a JetBlue plane is slightly smaller (34 inches), the minimum amount of legroom is 32 inches. Unfortunately, JetBlue only flies to a small percentage of the destinations I typically fly to.

The good news is that United (my Newark-based airline) and Delta rank third in terms of seat pitch. Both provide anywhere from 31 to 33 inches of legroom. American and US Airways planes provide slightly less at 31 to 32 inches of legroom.

The disparity was apparent to me even in “upgraded” seats on two recent flights: one a transpacific flight to Tokyo in a United Economy Plus seat and the second a transatlantic flight to the U.K. in an American Airlines Cabin Extra seat. I don’t have the actual measurements, but I can assure you the difference was clearly felt.

Air Canada and JetBlue also can provide the most seat width, though some Air Canada planes actually offer the narrowest seats, as well. Seats on United, Delta, American and US Airways are all the same width, but are also beat out by AirTran, Hawaiian and Allegiant.

Surviving the Middle Seat

At the opposite end of the spectrum, predictably, Spirit Airlines is the stingiest when it comes to legroom. But more surprising, Southwest planes are narrowest.

For now, I can only hope United keeps its seats the way they are. That way, I know I’m close to getting the most legroom available in the U.S. (with Delta), even if it’s only an extra inch. And when the opportunity arises, JetBlue here I come.

How important is legroom to you? Would you drive to an airport further away if it meant getting a bigger seat?

— written by Dori Saltzman

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