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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.’



“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.

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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

American AirlinesAmerican Airlines’ parent company, the AMR Corporation, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection yesterday; this is certainly dismal news for the carrier’s employees and shareholders. But American’s customers may likewise be worried about what lies ahead. Should fliers expect more fees, cuts to mileage programs and other unfavorable changes from the airline in the near future?

A piece published by satirical online newspaper the Onion in 2008 was oddly prescient. The story, American Airlines Now Charging Fees to Non-Passengers, reads: “[American Airlines President Gerard Arpey] said that non-passengers of American Airlines should expect to pay a small fee when making Greyhound bus reservations, choosing to drive to their final destination, or simply being a citizen of the United States with a valid Social Security number. Arpey went on to note that some additional charges would also apply, including a $15 fee for every piece of luggage customers have inside their bedroom closet, and a one-time payment of $40 for any American whose name is Greg.”

In the wake of a gloomy turn of events in the airline industry, it’s refreshing to have a chuckle. But is there an element of truth in this parody?

For now, everything — including ticket prices, extra fees and mileage programs — will pretty much stay the same. According to a statement posted on the airline Web site,”American Airlines and American Eagle are operating normal flight schedules, and our reservations, customer service, AAdvantage program, Admirals Clubs and all other operations are conducting business as usual.”

Every other legacy airline has gone through bankruptcy in the last decade — US Airways, United, Delta, etc. — and lived to tell the tale. Judging by past bankruptcies, we can predict that American will likely be curtailing its route map down the road. Says IndependentTraveler.com contributor Ed Hewitt, “Bankrupt airlines almost always make changes and cutbacks to routes and flight frequency; staying on top of your flight through e-mail notifications will help you get the word more quickly.” It’s a good idea to sign up for e-mail alerts from American if you have an upcoming flight scheduled.

As for fees, we can’t say whether or not American — or other carriers, for that matter — will roll out more petty charges to squeeze some extra revenue out of the pockets of its customers following this latest airline bankruptcy. As always, travelers should keep an eye on ticket terms and conditions when purchasing a flight.

What do you think of American Airlines’ bankruptcy filing? Take our poll and share your thoughts in the comments!

— written by Caroline Costello

money justiceA few weeks ago, we blogged about three planes that were left stranded on the tarmac for more than seven hours in Hartford. So today, admittedly, we felt a pang of satisfaction when we learned that the U.S. Department of Transportation has slapped a major fine on an airline for, lo and behold, leaving passengers stuck on the tarmac.

According to the Associated Press, American Eagle, a regional carrier operated by American Airlines, was fined $900,000 for weather-induced tarmac delays of more than three hours on 15 flights that arrived in Chicago on May 29. This fine includes damages to be paid to the fliers who were inconvenienced. Up to $250,000 of the $900,000 fine can be credited to passengers in the form of refunds, vouchers or awards miles. There were 608 people onboard the stranded flights.

This is the first tarmac-delay fine to be imposed by the Department of Transportation since the federal agency initiated new passenger protection laws in April 2010; those rules state that passengers stuck on the tarmac on a domestic flight for more than three hours must be offered the chance to deplane. Any airlines that fail to comply will face penalties of up to $27,500 per passenger. (To learn more, read Airline Passengers Get New Bill of Rights.)

A government-issued fine for passenger inconvenience is a fresh change for an industry in which petty fees and crummy customer service are de rigueur. But whether or not the $900,000 fine will serve as a warning for the airlines and save future fliers from the torments of epic tarmac delays remains to be seen. In How Will the DOT’s New Airline Passenger Rights Affect You?, Ed Hewitt suggests that some airlines might simply preemptively cancel more flights in order to avoid having to pay steep penalties for multi-hour tarmac delays. Writes Hewitt, “Clearly not everyone is sold on the tarmac delay rules; if cancellations really are higher as a direct result, then the problem is just being moved around, not solved. However, few will argue with the notion that multi-hour strandings with no relief, no recourse and no basic human necessities is a worthwhile trade-off.” And indeed, according to CNN Travel, cancellations are up since the passenger rights regulations took effect.

What’s your take? Did the airline get what it deserved — or should the government do more to protect passengers? Sound off in the comments.

— written by Caroline Costello

plane on tarmacLast weekend, hundreds of passengers were stranded on the tarmac at Hartford’s Bradley International Airport for more than seven hours. The Associated Press reports that three JetBlue planes and one American Airlines plane, which were originally bound for New York, were diverted to Connecticut and then left on the tarmac for the better part of the day on Saturday.

A JetBlue spokesperson told the AP that the planes were kept on the tarmac due to a series of complications, including equipment failure and low visibility in New York. When the passengers eventually deplaned after an interminable wait, they had to look for spur-of-the-moment accommodations in Connecticut. Many fliers spent the night curled up in an airport terminal.

But here’s the scary part: Toilets were jammed and provisions were low onboard the stranded planes. One passenger told the Hartford Courant, “‘We ran out of water. The bathrooms are all clogged up and disgusting. The power would go off every 45 minutes or so for five minutes or so, and that would freak people out. … I’ve heard about these kind of stories.'”

We’ve heard stories like this too. This unfathomable ordeal would make fine fodder for Airplane Horror Stories, our collection of disturbing-but-true tales from the skies. So what’s the worst headache a person can endure when traveling by plane? You decide:

— written by Caroline Costello

 Jack the CatJack, the fluffy orange feline that disappeared in John F. Kennedy International Airport about two months ago, has finally surfaced.

On August 25, Jack escaped from his pet carrier in the baggage area of JFK. The cat’s owner, Karen Pascoe, had checked Jack and a second cat for an American Airlines flight to California. Shortly after turning over her two pets, Pasco received an alarming call. An airline employee informed Pasco that one of her cats had somehow gotten out of his carrier. Jack had been unaccounted for until yesterday.

A note on the American Airlines Facebook page reports, “Jack was found in the customs room and was immediately taken by team members to a local veterinarian. American’s priority was advising Jack’s owner, Ms Pascoe, which occurred immediately after he was identified. Now we are also happy to advise all other Friends of Jack of this news.”

The “Friends of Jack” to whom American refers include more than 17,000 Facebook followers — many of whom have expressed growing anger toward the airline over the past nine weeks. Supporters declared October 15 and 22 “Jack the Cat Awareness Day,” and volunteers gathered at JFK to pass out flyers and search for the missing pet.

According to the official Jack the Cat Facebook page, Jack is currently receiving medical care at a veterinarian’s office in Queens, New York. The cat has been diagnosed with fatty liver disease, a severe illness that can occur as a result of malnourishment.

Jack’s journey is far from over. Upon recovery, the cat will fly to California to be reunited with his owner. American Airlines has offered to fly Jack home for free. But something tells us Jack might prefer a different carrier.

Traveling with a pet can have its pitfalls, and Jack’s dramatic story certainly serves as a cautionary tale to travelers thinking about checking an animal on a flight. For useful tips on hitting the road with a furry companion, read Traveling with Pets.

— written by Caroline Costello

jack the cat missingWhen the cat’s away, its owner will worry — as American Airlines discovered after a kitty named Jack mysteriously vanished at John F. Kennedy International Airport on Thursday. Jack went missing from the baggage claim area shortly after his owner, Karen Pascoe, checked him and another cat in for a flight to California with AA.

According to Pascoe, when she last saw her cats, an American Airlines employee was putting plastic ties around the kennel door. After she went through security, she got a call from AA to tell her that Jack was gone. Pascoe helped with the search for more than an hour before leaving on a later flight, assured that AA would keep looking for her cat. Days later, Jack is still missing — and no one can tell her how he escaped.

The search has spawned a Facebook page, Jack The Cat is Lost in AA Baggage at JFK, which has more than 9,000 feline-loving fans as of this writing. Many have chimed in with messages of support (“He looks like a wonderful fellow. Hope he’s found safe and well,” writes Laurie Mayer), while others have directed vitriol at American Airlines for, well, letting the cat out of the bag. “AA would not want to deal with my wrath if they lost one of my cats,” writes Stacy Spieker. “I hope, Jack, you are found safe and unharmed. Shame on AA. There is NOOOOOO excuse!!!”

5 Travel Ideas for Pet Lovers

American Airlines has responded to the torrent of bad publicity by posting updates on its own Facebook page about its efforts to recover Jack. To name a few: Humane traps have been set, footage from CCTV cameras in the baggage claim area is being studied and Pascoe will be flown back from California this weekend to help with the continuing search.

Jack may be evading the army of airline employees on his tail, but he’s found the time to set up shop on Twitter. “One thing @AmericanAir hasn’t thought of … litterbox. Hope this green dress wasn’t important. #luggage” tweeted @jackthelostcat yesterday.

Joking aside, the incident offers a troubling cautionary tale for traveling pet owners. While many animals fly safely every year, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports that 17 pets were killed and 5 injured on U.S. airlines between January and June 2011 (the latest dates for which statistics were available). If your pet is small enough, it’s almost always safer to carry him or her onboard with you rather than take a chance on the cargo hold.

See more tips for keeping pets safe while traveling. And if you find yourself at JFK in the next few days … keep an eye out for Jack.

— written by Sarah Schlichter