I love to globetrot, but I’m not the biggest fan of air travel — particularly because I get bored on flights longer than an hour (which, unfortunately, is most of them). Cue SkyMall, the infamous and ubiquitous mail-order catalog found in most seatback pockets. Targeting impulse buyers who have nothing better to do while soaring, it provides a means of procuring “Star Wars” plush toys, talking dog collars, gold-dipped roses and even Harry Potter’s wand. If those examples aren’t ridiculous enough, check out our list of the nine most head-scratching, money-wasting, dust-collecting products from the company’s early spring 2013 catalog.
Editor’s Note: Click on the thumbnail images for a larger view of each product.
9. SkyRest Travel Pillow: If you’ve ever fallen asleep on a flight and woken up with a stiff neck, this lap-based, wedge-shaped travel pillow appears to offer an affordable ($30) solution. Its cumbersome size may initially be a turn-off, but don’t worry — it’s inflatable, ensuring that you’ll thoroughly disturb the person in the seat next to you with all of the huffing and puffing required to blow it up.
8. Nano-UV Wand: Pack this $160 bad boy when you travel, and you can instantly kill dust mites and their eggs on pillows, bedding and carpets, according to the ad. Awesome — now you can sleep on dead bugs instead of bedbugs. If your sheets aren’t what’s worrying you, you can also pick up less expensive models for killing foodbourne bacteria ($60) or for sanitizing dinner plates and tap water while traveling ($100).
7. Bacon Throw and Pillow: Now bacon lovers of the world can do more than just eat it; they can sleep on it, too. This polyester pair is expensive at about $65 for both items, and apart from the hefty price, my question is simply: Why bacon? Why not eggs? Why not pancakes? I’d imagine the hash browns feel pretty left out too.
6. DermaTend: Talk about getting personal. With this handy-dandy tube of miracle cream, you can “safely remove your unwanted moles and skin tags at home.” Ranging in price from $40 to $100 (depending, of course, on how many moles you have), this product can be described in one word: gross.
5. Porch Potty: Has your pooch ever wanted his very own patch of synthetic grass on which to do his business? This wicker-enclosed 52″ x 6″ faux lawn — including a drain hose for outdoors, a catch basin for indoors and a scented fire hydrant — is certainly one step up from a Wee-Wee Pad, but at $260, it should be. For an extra $20, they’ll even throw in a sprinkler system to clean the Porch Potty. (After all, if you’re too lazy to take your dog outside in the first place, it’s likely you’ll also be too lazy to clean this darn thing.)
4. Tabletop Photo Studio: If you find yourself wanting to take professional photos on the go, be sure to pick up this portable 40-inch foldable photo studio ($200), which will give you the perfect shot … after you set up one of four backdrops, a tripod, two lights and whatever it is you’re hoping to photograph. For a smaller — but equally intricate and infuriating — experience, you can always try the 20-inch one instead ($100).
3. Bigfoot, the Garden Yeti: Pink flamingos are SO last-century. If you agree, show your disdain by snagging yourself one of these statues. It’s sure to be a conversation-starter at any garden party. (“Pssst! Did you SEE that thing? It’s so tacky!”) Ranging in height from 21″ to nearly 6 feet, medium ($90), large ($125) and life-size ($2,250) versions are available. Oh, and don’t forget to budget up to $200 extra for delivery charges.
2. Mounted Squirrel Head: Don’t hunt? Don’t worry! Pretend you do with this disturbing and not-at-all-lifelike squirrel head … and torso … and arms. Ew. This item is perfect for anyone interested in glorifying roadkill or a “Deliverance” revival. I beg you, spend your $25 elsewhere.
1. iGrow Hair Rejuvenation: If you’re in flight and really wishing you had more hair, this is one product you won’t want to pass up. Expose your scalp to 51 lasers and LED lights that will regrow what nature has taken away. This gadget, which will set you back a cool $695, looks like a cross between a space-age bicycle helmet and unnecessarily large headphones (for use with the built-in iPod interface, naturally). Whether you’re a male or a female, you’ll look stunning in this … contraption.
Last month, I finally decided to replace my camera. It had served me well for close to a decade, but technologically it was a bit outdated — and after an unfortunate fall off a cruise ship bed in Alaska, it was literally being held together with a rubber band. The time had come.
When I mentioned to a coworker that I was purchasing a new camera, she told me she no longer uses one, but instead relies exclusively on her iPhone. And she’s not alone. European market research company Mintel released a study earlier this year showing that digital cameras are losing popularity in the U.K. as more people turn to the increasingly sophisticated cameras built into smartphones. The study found that U.K. sales of digital cameras fell 29 percent between 2006 and 2011.
In a recent informal poll of IndependentTraveler.com readers on Facebook and Twitter, several respondents seemed to corroborate this trend. “With the megapixels in cell phones being about the same in a regular camera, using a cell phone works for me,” James Jones told us on Facebook.
“I use my iPhone for vacation photos,” wrote @BetsysBFF on Twitter. “I’m happy with the quality and can tweet or message them easily.”
“Dropped DLSR for [Samsung Galaxy] S3 on short trips. The quality [is] great. Only switch back for safari/specialist trips,” said @swalwell on Twitter.
But the majority of IndependentTraveler.com readers weren’t ready to ditch their cameras just yet, many arguing that the quality still isn’t up to the standard of a traditional camera. “I have tried numerous times to not use [a] real camera,” @StevePariseau told us on Twitter. “iPhone still no match for the real thing. Zoom, flash, night shots, etc.”
Twitter user @alisonashley7 agreed: “Still using the camera. Better range of settings. Next one will have SLR lens. You don’t get those with a phone!”
For me, given my current options, it was a no-brainer. My aging flip phone takes small, grainy shots that can’t compare to the beautiful photos I can snap with my new Panasonic Lumix. At least for this traveler, a camera is still the picture-perfect choice.
Today we bring you three stories from around the airline industry, including JetBlue’s toe-dip into presidential politics, a robot suitcase and a new approach to reducing airplane aisle gridlock.
If That Stupid [Candidate A/Candidate B] Wins…
I’m leaving the country on the next JetBlue flight. Even after Goodwill trucks pack up the last box of “Yes We Can (Again)”/”I Built This!” T-shirts on November 7, the losing side can take some solace. Nonpartisan airline JetBlue is giving away 2,012 flights to destinations outside the United States after the election. Entering is easy: Go to JetBlueElectionProtection.com and pick Obama or Romney. If your guy loses, you have a shot at becoming a temporary expat via one of JetBlue’s international routes, which include the Caribbean and Mexico. All of America wins.
About Time: Robot Luggage
Aussie air travel news site Terminal U is reporting on a new type of robot luggage that could someday hit an airport near you. An inventor has created a prototype of a hands-free suitcase, called “Hop,” which stalks its owner via signals from a cell phone’s Bluetooth. You move, Hop moves. You move, Hop doesn’t move? Hop alerts you by making your phone vibrate. (Hop moves, you move? The TSA bans Hop and you end up on the no-fly list.)
Check out this video of Hop in action:
About Time: Moving Airplane Seats
Reports the U.K.’s Daily Mail: U.S. company Molon Labe Designs claims that its “Sider Seat” — an aisle seat that can slide over and atop the middle seat — will save airlines two hours of extra flying time a day. Molon Labe says the movable seats would expand aisle width from 19 to 43 inches, allowing for whimsical twirling and quicker loading and unloading. The seats are not robots — a passenger or member of the flight crew must physically move them — and they do not recline. As one commenter on the Daily Mail site correctly pointed out, the approach to boarding would have to change in tandem with the furniture. What happens when the already beleaguered middle-seater finds he now has no seat?
IndependentTraveler.com has requested access to the airport bar napkin the idea was originally scribbled on.
Ballet flats can be ideal for travel. They’re small and easy to pack. They’re almost always cute and they go with many different outfits. But – and this is a big but – they can be iffy when it comes to comfort. So when Tieks, an online retailer of the “reinvented” ballet flat, asked us to test their shoes, which they claim you can “wear all day, every day,” we decided to take them up on their offer. After all, a truly comfortable pair of stylish ballet flats we could travel everywhere with would be an amazing find.
I picked a clover green pair of the shoes (there are more than 35 colors to choose from) and waited for them to arrive.
When they did arrive I was in for a small treat. The shoes come in a pretty box, wrapped with a flower bow. I expected to open the box and pull out the shoes, but no, it’s not that simple. The box is full of goodies besides the shoes, which come tucked into their folded-up style. There’s a small black stretchy carrying case for the flats, a larger scrunchable bag to throw your heels into if you’re switching shoes and several clips to pin up your trousers for going from heels to flats.
But the shoes were what I was really interested in and I immediately slipped them on.
It was apparent right away that they were cute – and I’ve since gotten numerous compliments on them. Their comfort was also immediately obvious. They just molded to my feet. The leather is soft and bends easily. It felt more like slipping on a pair of comfy house slippers than putting on shoes.
But I work at a desk all day. How do they hold up when you’re out and about, I wondered. After a week of wearing them to the office every day I finally had a chance to street test them when the entire IndependentTraveler.com company hit the streets of Princeton for a scavenger hunt. I spent nearly two hours running around 10 square blocks.
They did okay. The first hour was fine, but after that I could feel a sore spot slowly growing on the bottom of my left foot. By the time I sat down for dinner, I had a bona fide blister. So I probably won’t wear them again for heavy-duty walking – sorry, no walking tours through Paris in these shoes. But for a casual stroll, yeah, I’d slip them on.
So, are these shoes good for traveling? Definitely. Even if I can’t wear them for a day of sightseeing by foot, these shoes are so easy to pack. When folded in half inside their carrying case, they really don’t take up more space than a camera. If I want to wear heels on the plane but don’t want to sit in them, I can easily switch them for the flats. They make great dinner shoes, because they really are stylish. For a moderate day of walking, they’re perfect as well.
There is one drawback to these shoes, however. Definitely geared toward the trendy jetsetter, the price tag is quite steep. The clover green pair I selected cost $165 – and that’s the least expensive option! Other price points are $195, $235, $265 and $295.
I rarely spend more than $75 on a pair of shoes, so even at their lowest price point these shoes are out of my budget range. Besides, I’d find it difficult to justify spending $200 or more for a pair of ballet flats. But they certainly are cute and comfy, so if you’ve got the means and you don’t mind shelling out the bucks for fashion, then I say go for it. I doubt you’ll regret it.
In a recent poll, more than 77 percent of IndependentTraveler.com readers told us that they keep a travel journal during some or all of their trips — and I’m one of them.
Over the past decade, I’ve filled two and a half journals with scribbles about watching the sun rise in Morocco, hunting for “Lord of the Rings” sites in New Zealand and spotting totem poles in Vancouver. I’ve jotted down restaurants I wanted to recommend to friends and e-mail addresses for locals I wanted to keep in touch with. And at the end of every trip, when I get home and start sorting through hundreds and hundreds of photos, consulting my journal helps me figure out where I might’ve snapped those shots of fountains or flower boxes.
You can record your own trip memories in this attractive journal from Paperblanks, which we’re giving away to one lucky reader. The blue and gold cover is embossed with the writings of William Wordsworth, including quotes from his famous poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (also known as “Daffodils”).
Aside from its old-fashioned beauty, we like the journal for its convenient size — just 4″ by 5.5″, perfect to slip into your purse or jacket pocket — and for the magnetic cover that keeps the book shut when you’re done writing. This journal retails for $14.95.
To win the journal, leave a comment below by Monday, May 7, at 11:59 p.m. ET. Be sure to include a valid e-mail address so we can contact you in case you win. We’ll choose a winner on Tuesday.
As if travelers didn’t have enough to worry about. In addition to money belts to help us hide passports and credit cards under our clothes, there’s now a whole new line of travel gear to protect the electronic data stored on those documents.
Since 2007, all U.S. passports have been issued with a small electronic chip embedded in the back cover. The chip uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to store information, including all of the identifying data printed on the front page of your passport, as well as a biometric identifier — a digital image of the passport photograph that can be used for facial recognition technology when you cross international borders. The information in the chip is transmitted via radio waves when the passport is scanned by an RFID reader.
Your passport may not be the only document you carry that has an RFID chip; many newer credit cards have them as well. (If you’re not sure, look for the term “PayPass” printed on your MasterCard, “expresspay” on your AmEx or “payWave” on your Visa — or call your credit card company.)
The rise in RFID technology has raised concerns about just how securely these chips store our information. Anyone with an RFID reader who gets close enough to the chip would in theory be able to read the embedded data — including card numbers and expiration dates — even through clothing or a purse.
Does this mean you should race out and purchase an RFID-blocking wallet? Not necessarily. The U.S. State Department offers a detailed description of the security features of its electronic passports here, which explains that the passports themselves have RFID-blocking metal built into the cover — so the chip can’t be read unless the passport is opened.
I think a protective wallet would be more useful for credit cards, which seem to be at greater risk for data skimming. The cheapskates among us can also block RFID readers by wrapping their cards in aluminum foil — if you’re willing to lose a few style points.
On a recent trip, I test-drove a set of packing cubes for the first time — and discovered that despite all the raves I’ve read about them, they’ll never make it into my “must-pack” pile. To paraphrase an old break-up cliche, the problem wasn’t the packing cubes. It was me.
Packing cubes are lightweight fabric bags that you can use to separate your suitcase into manageable sections. The ones I tried were an attractive green three-piece set from eBags, with cubes ranging in size from 17.5 by 12.75 by 3.25 inches to 11 by 6.75 by 3 inches.The set normally retails for $29.99 (though the site is currently offering a 20 percent discount).
One of the main advantages of these packing cubes is their versatility. You can put pants in the large one, tops in the medium and socks/undies in the small. The Baby Bear-sized bag could also make a good home for a pair of shoes or some toiletries; meanwhile, Papa Bear can hold a decent-sized pile of dirty duds. For the organized traveler, the possibilities are endless.
Trouble is, I’m not a particularly organized traveler. Or, to be more precise, keeping things organized is less important to me than maximizing every inch of suitcase space. I typically roll my clothes into compact bundles that can be wedged neatly into gaps between other items, a strategy that’s allowed me to travel solely with a carry-on even on trips as long as two weeks. With the packing cubes, I found myself trying to work around three bulky rectangular shapes that, yes, kept things compartmentalized — but also left me with lots of wasted space.
And frankly, I didn’t really need a special organizer for my dirty laundry. Instead, I used what I always use: a plastic bag from the grocery store. (Cost: free.)
That said, here are a few examples of travelers who might benefit from using packing cubes:
-Partners who share a suitcase: Stow your clothes in blue bags and your hubby’s clothes in red ones so you can easily tell whose stuff is whose.
-Travelers who will be moving a lot from one hotel to another: Sort your outfits accordingly and you’ll only pull out what you need in each place, rather than turning your whole suitcase inside out.
For those travelers and more, I’m offering up my gently used packing cubes to help improve your next trip. If you’d like to receive my three-piece set of packing cubes, leave a comment below by Sunday, February 19, 2012, at 11:59 p.m. ET. We’ll pick one person at random to win the cubes. Be sure to include a valid e-mail address so we can notify you if you win.
Last Friday, we asked readers to guess how many jelly beans would fit into our brand-new IndependentTraveler.com travel mug. The answer was 449 jelly beans (laboriously counted three times by the site’s editor, who only ate a few afterward as a reward). Randy, who answered with 413, has won the travel mug. (There was another guess closer to the correct answer, but it was submitted outside the stated entry period of the contest.)
If you weren’t the lucky winner, don’t worry. You’ll get another shot at winning a mug this Friday, when our How Much Is This Hotel? contest returns.
IndependentTraveler.com readers, meet our brand-new travel mug. This sealable red and black logo cup will tote your coffee, cola, water or wine everywhere from cars to trains to planes (just be sure to fill it up after you’ve gone through airport security). To celebrate the arrival of our new mug, we’re giving one away to a clever reader.
To win the mug, all you need to do is figure out how many jelly beans fit inside it. Here are a few photos to help you guess:
We’ll award the mug (jelly beans not included!) to the reader who guesses closest to the correct number of jelly beans without going over. In the case of a tie, the mug goes to the person who answers first. Leave your answer in the comments below, and be sure to include a valid e-mail address so we can contact you in case you win. You must enter by Monday night, January 16, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. We’ll contact the winner and reveal the answer on Tuesday.
My carry-on bag and I had a long-term relationship. I don’t know our anniversary, but I must’ve traveled with the same plain, green, cheap-brand rollaboard for at least 10 years. I knew how to pack it so all my clothes would fit perfectly for a weeklong trip, and I was confident that it would fit in the overhead compartment of any major airline because that bag had already racked up serious frequent flier miles. It was love.
And then, this summer, it died.
Once I got over my grief, I realized I would need a new carry-on. While my trusty suitcase had probably been a hand-me-down from my mom, I was now overwhelmed with the choice of picking out my own. At eBags.com alone, you can choose from 570 different rolling carry-on bags. From wheeled duffels to colorful hard-sided bags, spinner wheels to roll-aboards-cum-backpacks, the choices were endless. Which would make the best travel companion in the years to come?
Just as I was going cross-eyed from reading too many customer reviews and considering therapy for my loss, I got an e-mail from a PR rep for Lipault of Paris, touting a new bag making its U.S. debut. The Lipault Travel Buddy was described as “light as a feather, ultra-durable and accessibly priced.” (It retails for $189.) I was attracted to its bright colors — red, orange and purple — as I hate straining to figure out which bag is mine on the carousel. And I was most intrigued by the claim that it squishes down to fit into a four-inch case for easy storage. When you live in an apartment and cruise a lot, compressible luggage is key.
So I got a free sample from the company to test out on a recent cross-country flight — a carry-on bag blind date, if you will. While I don’t think the Travel Buddy is the new love of my travel life, here’s my review of its, ahem, performance.
What I liked:
– The bag is definitely lightweight and compressible, made of strong 210-denier nylon twill fabric (I don’t know what that means either). I expected a thinner, floppier material (a la LeSportsac bags or ultra-light camping equipment), but it’s actually pretty sturdy. I carried it onboard one way, and could easily lift and carry the bag, while simultaneously pushing a stroller and carrying a backpack. I checked it on the way back, and it came back to me with no scuffs or tears. And it truly does squeeze down into a compact storage case that would fit easily under a bed, in a closet or in the corner of a cruise ship cabin.
– It’s very stuffable. I used it as my family’s laundry suitcase on the way back from our trip and just kept cramming more dirty clothes in, and the little bag just kept taking them. Though the bag looked full, I think I could have added even more with a little extra squishing.
– The carry-on fit easily in the overhead compartment with room to spare, even in the odd space over the lip between two compartment openings.
– The bag stood out, not only for its bright purple color but because it didn’t look like the typical carry-on. I even got a comment on it from the airline rep at bag check — and you know she sees a lot of luggage every day!
What I didn’t like:
– The bag has official dimensions of 21.6 x 14.2 x 7.9 inches (the PR rep calls it a 22-inch bag, while the Web site lists it as 20 inches). But as you can see from the photo, it appeared much smaller than my husband’s bag, the REI Tech Beast (official dimensions: 22 x 14 x 8.5 inches). As a tall person, I’m not sure I could fit a week’s worth of clothes in there (especially once you add in shoes). The next size up, the 25-inch bag, is not carry-on friendly.
– The outside pocket is in the middle of the bag, yet the pocket runs the length of the bag. It was awkward to pack, and once the inside compartment of the bag was maxed out, it was nearly impossible to squeeze anything into the exterior pocket. Also, while the bag expands to the limits of its flexible material, it does not have a zippered expansion section.
– The $189 price tag is a little high for a small-ish carry-on whose only real feature is its compressibility.
Final verdict: I enjoyed my time with the Travel Buddy, but I think we can only be friends.
If you know an eligible bag good for a former frequent flier, now toting a tyke, who likes international travel, outdoor adventures, urban escapes, extra legroom seats and long walks through a terminal, let me know in the comments section below.