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orion luggage adsWould you shelve your favorite piece of luggage and instead use a bag plastered with advertisements if it meant you didn’t have to pay airlines’ checked bag fees anymore?

It’s an intriguing idea, especially for families and frequent travelers who spend several hundreds of dollars a year merely to hand off their luggage before a flight. A former Continental Airlines flight attendant dreamed up this concept, in which you’re paid to use a piece of luggage that’s enveloped in an ad for the U.S. Army or an upcoming Hollywood blockbuster or another big brand.

“A family wants to travel to Disney World and it will cost them $250 in baggage fees, and that makes a dent in their budget,” creator Gary German told TODAY.com. “I want to alleviate that.”

Participants sign up on the website of German’s company, Orion Travel Tech of Celebration, Florida, which is waiving the $19.99 sign-up fee for the first 1 million people. Beginning in February, participants will receive two pieces of wheeled luggage in the mail — a 21-inch carry-on and an expandable, 25-inch checked bag. The bags are made of hard-back plastic, and each bag will have a non-removable advertisement molded directly into it.

Each time you travel and check the bag, Orion will deposit a roundtrip fee of $50 on a special gift card that can only be used to pay for checked luggage fees at your airport check-in counter.

7 Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

The brands advertising on the bags haven’t been announced yet, but Orion’s website is showing samples with logos from Verizon, General Motors — and how’s this for irony? — Southwest Airlines! German said participants will get to choose which ad is on their luggage.

“Most people have corporate logos on their luggage now and they’re not getting paid for it,” German said.

He’s got a point. People have had advertisements on their luggage for years. Remember the now-vintage luggage labels that travelers used to stick on their steamer trunks and suitcases to brag about where they’d been? Surprise — they were brilliant advertisements for hotels, ski resorts and tourism destinations.

Plus, ads are plastered all over airports as it is, so what are a few more?

Today.com reports that the suitcases will come with a few fun extras, including airport lounge access and a tampering alert system to warn you if someone breaks into your bag.

Weigh in: Would you carry advertising-covered luggage if it meant you didn’t have to pay checked bag fees?

— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma

Like many travelers these days, I prefer to pack light and fly with nothing but a carry-on. I hate the lines for checking luggage, waiting in crowds at baggage carousels and hoping against hope that my checked bag didn’t get lost in transit. Airlines, though, keep adjusting allowable carry-on sizes, and some, like Frontier and Spirit, charge you for a carry-on that must be stowed in the overhead bin.

So naturally, I was intrigued by the CarryOn Free bag, which is designed to be a suitcase that fits underneath your seat — even on Spirit — which makes it a “personal item” and is, thus, free to travel with. The bag retails for $69.99. I gave it a whirl for a three-day getaway to Vegas and a two-day trip to New York City. Read on to learn how it fared — and find out how to win one for yourself.

carryon free

The Good
It fits! The bag’s design is unique. It’s a true rolling suitcase with a telescopic handle, but it’s compact, and the top is narrower than the base so it can be slid under a seat. And at 16 inches tall, 14 inches wide and 12 inches deep, it really does fit. We tried it on a United flight and found that it didn’t require any fancy maneuvering.

It’s sturdy: This is not a flimsy suitcase that feels cheap. The polyester fabric is thick and doesn’t stain easily. The handle, which extends to 40 inches, isn’t shaky, as we’ve seen with some suitcases. The zippers operate smoothly, and the fabric inside seems durable. We gave this case a workout, dragging it through the streets of Manhattan, over sewer grates and through packed sidewalks, and it rolled smoothly. The handle also pulls up (and pushes down) quickly and easily, for when you need to transition between pulling and carrying. My 6-foot-4 husband liked the length of the handle and didn’t have to stoop to use it.

There’s lots of room: Despite its compact size, this case can fit a lot. I was easily able to pack for our trip to Vegas in this case alone, and I included three pairs of shoes in addition to day clothing, nightwear, fitness clothing and pool garb. My trip to New York was a business trip, and I had plenty of room for several pairs of shoes, business attire and even my laptop and tablet.

carryon free

The Bad
No legroom: The problem with putting the CarryOn Free bag under your seat is that you sacrifice legroom — which is especially troublesome if you’re tall or traveling in economy class. The suitcase takes up the entire space beneath the seat, so you can ‘t stretch out at all. This can get fairly uncomfortable on longer flights.

Digging around: While there’s enough space in the bag for a long weekend’s worth of packing, it’s because the suitcase is so deep. If you don’t like to unpack, you’ll be digging around in the suitcase all the time to find what you’re looking for, which inevitably is at the bottom of the case. An inside pocket on the lid is sufficient for holding small items like toiletries, but the deep bag itself lacks dividers (though two straps at the bottom can help prevent items from shifting).

In-flight access: Once this case goes under the seat, it’s there to stay, so don’t plan to pack anything into it that you might need to access mid-flight. When it’s packed, it can be heavy and difficult to maneuver from under the seat without jostling your seatmates.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Want to give it a try? You can win our gently used suitcase! Just leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, September 23, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the suitcase. This giveaway is open only to residents of the lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest is closed. The winner of the bag is Lisa Dudding. Congratulations!

— written by Colleen McDaniel

If you’ve ever had a travel-size bottle of shampoo or lotion leak all over the inside of your suitcase, you might be a good candidate to try a new brand of toiletries called Squeeze Pod. As the name suggests, these are stored in lightweight, single-use “pods” that can be squeezed to dispense each product. They’re designed not to leak until you break the seal; after use, you simply throw them away.

Check out this quick video about how they work:

I tried out a variety of Squeeze Pod products on a recent trip to Cuba. I found that the toiletries were pleasantly scented and did their job just fine. The only slight exception was the toilet odor eliminator, which didn’t entirely banish the smell I needed banished, but helped matters significantly by masking it with a clean, eucalyptus-tinted fragrance. All Squeeze Pod toiletries are vegan, sulfate-free, made in the U.S. and not tested on animals.

My only hitch was actually opening the pods. It’s important to break the seal by pulling the tab up toward the colored side of the packaging, not the other way. (The pods I tested didn’t have this labeled, but a spokesperson says the company is hoping to add clearer instructions in the future, as well as experimenting with different kinds of plastic that would only bend in one direction.) Pulling the tab the wrong way at first causes the seal not to break cleanly, leaving me spurting shampoo all over the shower wall on one occasion, and having to squeeze with a wrestler’s strength to eke the gel out through a too-tiny hole on several other occasions.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

squeeze pod variety packSqueeze Pod currently has five products for sale on its website: toilet odor eliminator, moisturizing lotion, hair gel, shave cream and hand purifier. Four of the other toiletries I was able to try are not currently for sale, but the company tells us they’re coming in June: shampoo, conditioner, facial cleanser and body wash. The cost ranges from $1.49 for a three-pack of hand purifier to $120 for a sampler of more than 225 pods of various types.

Want to try these toiletries out for yourself? We’re giving away a variety pack that includes two to three pods each of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, facial cleanser, toilet odor eliminator, shaving cream, hand purifier, moisturizing lotion and hair gel. Just leave us a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on May 31, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the variety pack. This giveaway is open only to residents of the lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner of the Squeeze Pod toiletry pack is Anisa Parker. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further chances to win.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

apple watchWhen the much-anticipated Apple Watch debuts next month, the accompanying Apple Watch store will introduce numerous nifty features for travelers as well. Skift lists six different travel apps you’ll want to watch out for (no pun intended).

We think the coolest one is the SPG app, which will allow travelers to use their watches to open their Starwood hotel room door — without having to fiddle with a room key. You can also use this app to check in or get directions to the hotel.

American Airlines’ app will send you notifications of gate changes and baggage claim information, while Expedia will give you details on hotel check-in/check-out times, flight seat assignments and more. Other travel apps that will be available on the new watch include OpenTable (restaurant reservations), TripAdvisor (hotel/restaurant/attraction reviews) and Citymapper (public transit information). Numerous others are sure to follow.

The Best New Travel Apps

The Apple Watch debuts on April 24, with prices ranging from $349 (for the most basic sports model) up to $10,000 for a luxury version. Note that the watch does not work as a standalone product; according to Apple’s website, it requires an iPhone 5 or later.

Will you buy an Apple Watch?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.

skymall logoLast month we mourned and gnashed our teeth when SkyMall, that lovable in-flight catalog of incredibly useless items, declared bankruptcy and stopped its print publication. But take heart: Turns out you may still be able to purchase a six-foot Statue of Liberty replica or a Tyrannosaurus rex trophy head to hang on your wall.

Yahoo! Travel reports that the CEO of ScotteVest, Scott Jordan, is hoping to bring back the print catalog on planes — but there’s a catch: “We’re going to include items in the magazine that people actually want to buy.”

Well, that’s no fun.

Or is it? According to Yahoo!, the new SkyMall could feature some pretty nifty features. You could, for example, purchase a digital camera in the air and have it delivered to your hotel the day after you arrive. There may also be a page in the new magazine for app reviews, including a special code so you can buy the apps at a discount. Along with plenty of catalog items for sale (including travel gear and even tours and hotel rooms), there will also be articles about topics relevant to travelers, such as how those clever noise-canceling headphones work.

But the best news of all is that some of the wacky products SkyMall is known for will still be in the magazine, only in a small section rather than spread throughout the publication. What a relief!

The new SkyMall could be onboard flights as soon as June if all negotiations go well. In the meantime, if you need a hit of cow-shaped benches and porch potties for your dog, you can still visit SkyMall.com.

The Best of SkyMall:
9 Useless Items You Can Buy at 35,000 Feet
7 More Useless Items You Can Buy at 35,000 Feet

— written by Sarah Schlichter

pivotal soft case gear bagOne of the biggest innovations in luggage over the past several years has been the development of spinner wheels — but now a company has come up with a spinner handle.

The Pivotal Soft Case Gear Bag has a sturdy grip that doesn’t extend and retract the way most suitcase handles do; instead, it rotates 360 degrees so you can hang onto it at any angle that’s comfortable for your hand and wrist. (The idea is based on Perfect Pushup exercise grips.) To make up for the non-telescoping handle, the suitcase is taller and thinner than most: 36 inches high, 14 inches wide and 12 inches deep.

I liked the idea of the pivoting handle, and I wasn’t alone — the bag won the Product Innovation Award at last year’s International Travel Goods Show. In practice, though, it wasn’t such a hit. When I filled up the suitcase and began walking around with it, the shortness of the handle meant the top of the bag banged into the back of my thigh with each step. I could avoid it by holding my arm out to the side, but the position felt unnatural and made the bag seem heavier.

To make sure it wasn’t just me, I took the bag for a spin around the office and let a few colleagues try it out. It turns out that your height (or perhaps your wingspan?) may determine how comfortable this suitcase is to walk with. The tallest person in our office — at 6’7″ — called the bag “the most comfortable suitcase I’ve ever used.” The other folks who were able to pull the bag smoothly were 6’0″ and 6’1″, respectively. But my less lanky colleagues, ranging from 5’0″ to 5’10”, ran into the same problem I did, with the bag hitting their legs as they walked. It seems that shorter arms and the shorter pivoting handle make for a bad combination.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

That issue aside, the bag has plenty of perks. There are three different external pockets, two on the sides and one on the front, where you can store items for quick access. Inside are even more options for compartmentalization, with two dividers that you can use to separate, say, shoes from sweaters and books from clothing. There are also three different sizes of flat zipper compartments.

The bag can be collapsed for easy storage, and while the wheels don’t spin, they are large and look durable enough to handle cobblestones or rougher terrain. The weight of the bag is reasonable at 10.7 pounds, and the length of the bag, as well as the duffel straps, mean it can be used as a sports gear bag between trips.

pivotal soft case gear bag handleOne possible concern: Most U.S. airlines limit checked baggage to a total of 62 inches (height + width + depth), and the bag fits just fine by that measure. But a few airline websites we checked, including those of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, specified a maximum height of 35.5 inches, which this bag would ever-so-slightly exceed.

The suitcase sells for $249.95 at PivotalGear.com and comes in six different colors.

Want to try it out for yourself? We’re giving away our (gently used) suitcase! Just leave us a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on March 12, 2015. We’ll pick one winner at random to win the Pivotal Soft Case Gear Bag. This giveaway is open only to residents of the lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Honey Bolas. Stay tuned for more chances to win!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

southwest luv seat duffel bagSouthwest Airlines, long known for its inexpensive fares, unassigned seating, free checked bags and singing flight attendants, is now jumping into the world of fashion. Partnering with an Oregon-based company, the airline has turned scrap leather from its airplane seats into high-end handbags.

According to Forbes, Southwest was left with 43 acres of used leather after replacing seats on some of its aircraft with lighter ones to reduce fuel costs. It took most of the material to Looptworks, a company that uses industrial scraps to create unique pieces that reduce waste and aim to help the environment, where it will be made into vintage-inspired bags. (In another admirable move, Southwest also sent some of the leather abroad to SOS Kenya, which benefits orphaned children, and Massai Treads, which makes shoes for people in need.)

Looptworks is offering three bag designs — backpack, duffel and tote — which can be preordered as part of what has been dubbed “Project LUV Seat.” The company claims that each bag produced saves 4,000 gallons of water and reduces CO2 emissions by 72 percent (when compared with what would be required to use brand-new leather for the same bags).

As if this idea couldn’t get any more awesome, Looptworks employed disabled adults to deconstruct and clean the leather.

Part-Time Voluntourism: How to Give Back During a Trip

The irony, though, is that the bags are retailing for anywhere from $150 to $250 each — more than the cost of some of Southwest’s roundtrip flights.

Would you purchase one of these bags? Leave your comments below.

–written by Ashley Kosciolek

gomadic sunvolt solar chargerDo you know someone who’s always on the road or in the air? You could gift that person with the standard inflatable pillow, ear plugs or luggage, but why not surprise him or her with the true comforts and conveniences of home instead? These items are practical and perfect for use on long international trips, from the plane to the hotel and everywhere in between.

This is the answer to every international traveler’s biggest problem: roaming charges. KnowRoaming is a prepaid data sticker that attaches to your phone (in a one-time application) and automatically switches to a local provider upon arrival in a new country. You can pay as you go (rates vary by country) and easily manage usage in the app so there aren’t any surprises; for heavy users, unlimited plans are also available for $7.99 per day. A bonus: Your actual phone number shows up when making calls.

Note: Before you buy this for a friend or family member, make sure you know what type of phone he or she has. KnowRoaming doesn’t operate on Blackberries or CDMA phones. Also, phones must be unlocked prior to a trip — this means network restrictions need to be removed so the phone can operate with a different SIM card. Check KnowRoaming.com for restrictions and guidelines by carrier.

Approximate Cost: $30

Gomadic SunVolt
You’ve heard of multi-device chargers that don’t require outlets (if they’ve already been charged by one, of course), but Gomadic SunVolt doesn’t require outlets at any point. Why? It’s powered by solar energy. Up to two devices can charge at a time, and additional lithium polymer batteries can be purchased to store excess energy for nighttime charges.

Approximate Cost: $100

Christmas Markets: Europe and Beyond

Olloclip 4-in-1 Lens System
Maybe your giftee doesn’t want to lug a big camera and multiple lenses around during a three-week tour of Europe. Instead, consider the gift of an Olloclip 4-in1 Lens System (for iPhones). It offers four views: fish-eye, wide-angle and two macro options. It easily clips on to iPhones and comes with two lens caps and a carrying case.

Approximate Cost: $70

Kikkerland Music Branch 3-Way Headphone Splitter
There’s no need to share a set of headphones with this nifty, inexpensive gadget, ideal for traveling duos or trios. This earphone splitter offers three inputs so two or three people can watch a movie or listen to music together on a laptop (rather than squint at those small airplane screens). It’s also useful for couples with napping youngsters in tow.

Approximate Cost: $10

Satechi USB Portable Humidifier v.1
The Satechi USB Portable Humidifier connects to a water bottle and moistens dry air in hotel rooms (or even at home between trips) — perfect for rehydrating your nose and sinuses after a long-haul flight. When filled with cold water, it also acts as a mister to cool you off on hot days. Other functions include dim lighting for nighttime and aroma diffusing — just add liquid fragrances. To operate, plug into a USB port; it automatically shuts off after eight hours.

Approximate Cost: $30

Escape the Cold: 8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations

— written by Amanda Geronikos

eatsmart digital luggage scaleIf you’ve ever gotten to the check-in desk at the airport and been alarmed to discover that your suitcase was overweight, there’s an easy solution: a luggage scale.

While you can always try putting your suitcase on your bathroom scale at home, a luggage scale is an easier and more accurate way to see just how heavy your bag is. As a bonus, you can take it with you on your trip too, so before you head home, you can weigh your bag in your hotel room to figure out whether all those souvenirs you bought will push you over your airline’s weight limit.

We recently took EatSmart’s Precision Voyager Digital Luggage Scale for a spin. The scale is easy to use, with a simple on/off button and a “UNIT” button that toggles between pounds and kilograms.

To weigh your bag, you attach the scale to your suitcase handle using a sturdy strap and buckle. Then you lift the bag for a few seconds until the scale offers a digital reading. It helps that the scale’s handle is big enough for both hands; that makes it easier to lift a heavy bag for the few seconds it takes the scale to display the weight. The scale can handle up to 110 pounds (50 kilograms).

You may be tempted to pack your bag all the way up to the 50-pound limit (which is when most airline overweight fees start kicking in). However, we’d recommend leaving yourself a couple of extra pounds — not only to pack the scale itself, as EatSmart recommends, but also to allow for variation between the scale’s readings and those of the scale at the airport. When we weighed the same bag several times, we got different readings from the Precision Voyager, ranging from 10.9 – 11.2 pounds for an empty suitcase and 28.5 – 28.8 pounds for a full one. Best to leave a little room for error.

7 Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

The scale is currently selling on Amazon.com for $19.95 plus shipping. Want to win one for yourself? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, November 17, 2014. We’ll pick two people at random to win a luggage scale. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

travelwise packing cubesIf you consider packing a vocation and allocate every square inch of your suitcase using a color-coded spreadsheet, you’re probably already familiar with packing cubes, those soft-sided little rectangles of happiness that make organizing a snap and ensure you’ll pack light.

For the uninitiated, packing cubes are essentially rectangular zip-close bags that come in various sizes. They help keep clothes from wrinkling because they reduce shifting in luggage, and they allow travelers to make the best use of limited suitcase space.

TravelWise offers a 3-Piece Packing Cube Weekender Set that includes cubes in three sizes, ostensibly for those looking to organize for shorter trip. Here’s how they stacked up on trip in which they were used in conjunction with a standard carry-on suitcase.

The three sizes (11.5 inches by 6.75 inches by 3.75 inches; 13.75 by 9.75 by 3.75; and 17.5 by 12.75 by 4) make organizing simple, with smaller items like undergarments and socks fitting perfectly in the smallest cube and pants and blouses in larger two. All three cubes easily fit into a standard carry-on bag, with room for spare items like shoes.

The biggest cube seems unnecessarily large, though. Maybe I’m just a light packer, but for a weekend trip I probably could’ve left that one at home to make room for other odd-sized items.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Confession: I have been known to overpack cubes, leading to a burst zipper or two. TravelWise’s zippers are sturdy and easy to grip, and they pull smoothly. I didn’t test them to their max, but they withstood lots of repeated opening and closing.

Packing cubes are supposed to help you organize your items without bogging you down, so “lightweight” is essential to any materials. Made of nylon, TravelWise’s packing cubes are plenty light, with a mesh panel in the center of each. The mesh helps you identify what is in each cube at a glance so you aren’t stuck digging through to find things. This design also allows airflow, so I was able to pack dirty clothes in them for the return trip. The cubes require handwashing.

I often leave my clothes in the cubes, then just plop them in a drawer at the hotel when I arrive, so having a handle is a small convenience that makes grab-and-go that much easier. The handles on TravelWise’s cubes are durable, and they stand up to being hung from hangers, showerheads and hooks.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

The Bottom Line
Ultimately, there isn’t a lot of variation in packing cubes from brand to brand. Most high-quality cubes come in various sizes, are made of durable materials and have multiple color options. TravelWise’s cubes are slightly deeper than other brands I’ve used, which will accommodate more clothing without taking up significantly more space in your suitcase. They’re available through online retailers such as Amazon and retail for $39.95.

Want to win a set of gently used red packing cubes? Leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on October 27, 2014. We’ll pick one person at random to win the bag. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.

Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Roanne Coplin, who will receive a set of gently used packing cubes. Congratulations! Stay tuned for further chances to win.

— written by Colleen McDaniel