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airplane child drink trayPillows, headphones, meals, checked bags … these are just a few things that travelers used to get for free but currently have to pay for on most flights. And now there’s someone out there arguing that airlines should eliminate the free beverage and snack service as well.

John Nicholson at the Huffington Post writes, “Stop forcing that default complimentary soda and snack on your economy passengers on domestic flights. Most of us don’t want it, all of us can do without it and we all know you can’t really afford it.” He goes on to argue that we can easily live without a soda or a mini-bag of pretzels for a couple of hours on the ground, so why do we need them in the air? If we actually do want some refreshment, he says, we should be able to buy it at a reasonable price, rather than paying the airlines’ current inflated prices for anything more substantial than a handful of potato chips.

While I see his point, I’m not quite convinced. First off, does anyone really think the airlines would suddenly give us reasonably priced food options if they eliminated complimentary snacks? Call me crazy, but I think they’d just pocket the profit.

Why Airline Food Stinks: A Scientific Explanation

And yes, most of us can live a few hours without eating, but in the ultra-arid environment of a plane, it’s nice to have that extra drink to help us stay hydrated, even on shorter flights. If you must take my snack away, at least let me still have some water for free!

Finally, well, let’s face it: flying is boring. Having the drink/snack service to look forward to is one thing that gets me through the hours. Especially since the airlines have taken just about everything else away.

5 Foods to Avoid Before Flying

Do you think the airlines should eliminate the complimentary soda and snack? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

snow carHere in the Northeast, we’re bracing for a winter walloping. A storm moving into the region today could bury New England in several feet of snow and has already forced the cancellation of thousands of flights into and out of area airports.

While past winter storms have resulted in notoriously bad experiences for fliers — like being stuck in a JetBlue plane on the tarmac for up to 11 hours back in 2007 — the Associated Press reports that airlines are now taking a more proactive approach, canceling flights in advance whenever bad weather is expected. Keeping fliers out of airports and planes safely on the ground may lead to a backed-up schedule after the storm, but should minimize those agonizing tales of hours stuck on a plane or sleeping in the airport for days at a time.

Essential Winter Travel Tips

For today’s Friday Free-for-All, we want to hear about the worst weather-related experience you’ve suffered while traveling. A extra-long flight delay? A hurricane-soaked week in the Caribbean? Post your story in the comments below.

And for all those in the path of today’s storm, stay safe!

Escape the Cold: 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations

— written by Sarah Schlichter

florence view woman italyHave you studied or volunteered abroad, or worked as an expat in a foreign country? In this week’s Friday Free-for-All, we want to hear about your experiences of living in a country outside your own. Your story could be used in a future IndependentTraveler.com article!

We’re looking for answers to the following questions:

1. Where did you live, and for how long?

2. How did you do it? (Examples: study abroad program, teaching English as a second language, Peace Corps, etc.)

3. What’s one piece of advice you’d give another traveler who wants to live in that country?

Leave your answers in the comments below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, February 4, 2013. We’ll choose one commenter at random to win an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. Be sure to include a valid e-mail address so we can notify you in case you win!

Living Abroad: 4 Ways to Make It Happen

— written by Sarah Schlichter

oops signWe’ve all heard the old saw about lemons and lemonade, and nowhere is it more apt than travel. Maybe you’ve parlayed getting lost into an unexpectedly rewarding detour, or an hours-long flight delay into the opportunity to chat with friendly fellow travelers. But even when your trip is spiraling down into a fiasco of epic proportions, you can almost always get one thing out of it: a good story to tell later.

In this week’s Friday Free for All, we’re looking for those stories. Tell us about a travel snafu that turned funny or entertaining — if only in retrospect. I’ll kick things off with my own anecdote, as documented in The Most Awkward Moments in Travel:

“My gate was set to close in 15 minutes. In my frantic dash through the airport, I attempted to breeze past an older woman on a moving walkway, but accidentally clipped her with my backpack. ‘Sorry!’ I called over my shoulder with an apologetic wave. ‘EXCUSE YOU!’ she hollered furiously at my retreating back.

“Seconds later, I was horrified to realize that I was actually running in the opposite direction from my gate. Cringing at the thought of turning tail and facing the woman I’d just ticked off, I took the coward’s way out and ducked into the nearest ladies’ room till the coast was clear.”

Comment below with your travel fiasco story by Tuesday, January 29, 2012 at 11:59 p.m. ET. Our favorite will win an IndependentTraveler.com travel mug!

Editor’s Note: This contest is now closed. Congratulations to Mike Crome, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com mug with the following hilarious tale. Thanks to everyone who submitted their stories.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

asia fried insectsMaybe it was the first time you found yourself in a city where you couldn’t read a single street sign. Or your first experience of haggling in a busy public market. Or the moment a local proudly offered you a heaping plate of fried insects or boiled lamb’s head.

That feeling of disorientation is the subject of this week’s Friday Free-for-All. We want to hear about your first — or worst! — experience of culture shock while traveling. Where were you, and how did you get through it? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

If you need a little inspiration, check out this story about culture shock in Morocco from our own Traveler’s Ed: Culture Shock: Outside the Comfort Zone.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

retired couple seniors viewI recently watched “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a film about the mishaps of a group of Brits who retire to a less-luxurious-than-advertised hotel in India. My own retirement is still several decades away, but the movie got me thinking — would I be brave enough to spent my golden years living abroad in an unfamiliar place?

When I think of the possibilities, it seems awfully appealing. I can easily picture myself whiling away my afternoons at a sunny cafe in Barcelona, living near a beach in Belize or browsing colorful vegetable markets in Thailand for my dinner every night. Sure, there’d be some drawbacks — distance from family, logistical hassles — but for those of us who love experiencing new cultures and places, it could be one last great adventure.

12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place

Would you want to retire in a foreign country, and if so, where would you choose?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

baggage claim airportAs a experienced traveler, I know all the right things to do when it comes to making sure you go home with your own luggage. I have a very distinctive red Rimowa suitcase (I’ve never encountered one quite like it), I’ve tied colored ribbons around one handle, and there are some flight and hotel labels stuck on it — so it’s hard to miss.

But last year, after a 10-hour flight from Helsinki and a 1.5-hour wait at Newark’s border control, I was tired and distracted, and when a red suitcase came around the belt, I grabbed it and set off. The wheels were wobbly, which I chucked up to yet another annoyance in an annoying day. Literally 10 steps past the customs agent, I bent down to check out what had happened to the wheels, and that was the moment I knew: this was not my suitcase. It was an absolutely identical model, but there were no ribbons, no decals.

What to Do if an Airline Loses Your Luggage

I immediately went back to the customs agent to ask if I could swap the suitcase, but he said, “No can do” (which was understandable). He called an agent from my airline, who told me that I’d eventually get my suitcase back — but because I had cleared customs it would take three or four hours. Hanging around wasn’t a palatable solution, so I anted up about $82 to have it delivered the next day.

I consider the whole affair an $82 learning experience. And I felt badly for the person whose suitcase it really was (and hope she’ll get those wheels fixed someday).

What’s the silliest travel mistake you made in 2012?

— written by Carolyn Spencer Brown

2013In our last Friday Free-for-All of 2012, we’re looking ahead to the year 2013. Along with all those vows to quit smoking or lose weight, we bet you’ve got a few resolutions for the year in travel. Are you finally going to take that bucket list trip? Volunteer abroad? Visit at least two new countries? We want to hear about it.

My own 2013 resolution isn’t so much about where I travel but how. Namely, I want to quit sweating the small stuff. Stressing out over whether I’m going to make my connection in time isn’t going to make the plane fly faster — so I resolve to chill out and enjoy the ride.

Which Destinations Will You Visit in 2013?

IndependentTraveler.com News Editor Dori Saltzman says, “I resolve to take at least two three-day trips. I’d like to try to go to Pennsylvania Dutch country, the Berkshires or the Adirondacks. And I resolve to try at least one new food when I’m traveling (I’m a PICKY eater!).”

Now it’s your turn. What’s your travel resolution for 2013? Share it in the comments below!

Top Travel Trends for 2013

— written by Sarah Schlichter

fjordland national parkIn this week’s Friday Free-for-All, we want to hear about the movies or TV shows that have inspired you to travel. For me, two movies, more than any others, aroused a travel desire almost too strong to ignore.

If sweeping vistas of stunning landscapes are your thing, the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy movies can’t fail to get your travel desire boiling. Seeing New Zealand displayed in all its natural magnificence on the big screen was too much for me to resist and within a few years of the first movie coming out I was in New Zealand visiting many of the places used as backdrops for the film.

On a smaller scale, the lesser-known “Enchanted April,” which I saw as a teenager, left me with a lingering need to rent a villa in Tuscan Italy. Anytime I feel the need to take a step back from the hectic pace of life as I know it, I imagine standing on a hill overlooking a Tuscan countryside with nothing to do but be still. I haven’t yet done it, but I know that someday I will.

Which movies or TV shows have featured scenery that has stuck with you to this day and moved you to visit the places depicted?

Turn Your Favorite Hobby into a Trip

— written by Dori Saltzman