Check out the stories you may have missed in the travel world this week.
MasterCard Could Share Your Height and Weight with Airlines, But Will It?
Skift reports on an eyebrow-raising new patent application from MasterCard that could affect how your data is shared with airlines. Because the credit card company has records of consumer purchases — including the sizes of shoes and clothing — it could theoretically let an airline know how large you are, allowing the carrier to avoid seating “two physically large strangers next to each other,” according to the patent.
Travel Is So Much Better Than It Was
It’s easy for travelers to find things to complain about — baggage fees, security lines, shrinking legroom — but this column from the National Review points out that we actually have it pretty good these days, thanks to new technology and innovative services such as Airbnb and Uber.
Five Myths About Hotel Room Service
USA Today debunks a few common myths about room service. Did you know, for instance, that you might not have to tip (if the gratuity is already included on the bill)?
Check out what you may have missed from around the travel world this week.
20 Best Photos of 2016
The Dronestagram blog offers picks for the best drone photos of the past 12 months, featuring striking shots of roads, beaches and lavender fields from a unique bird’s-eye perspective.
U.S. Government Collecting Social Media Information from Foreign Travelers
The Guardian reports that the U.S. government wants foreign visitors to reveal their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts when applying for a visa. It’s part of an effort to fight terrorism, though we can’t help but wonder whether a would-be terrorist would happily volunteer his or her incriminating accounts. (The social media info is not required in order to obtain a visa.)
Georgia’s Svan Song
Roads & Kingdoms profiles the little-known region of Svaneti, in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. The unique culture and religion of this region is endangered by economic decline and a lack of visitors.
Inside the Life of an Oyster Hotel Investigator
Ever wondered what it’s like to review and photograph hotels for a living? Our sister site, Oyster.com, offers an interview with one of its hotel investigators, who shares what an average day is like and reveals why it’s not as glamorous a job as it might sound.
The 10 Best Low-Cost Airlines in the World
Business Insider reveals the best low-cost carriers around the world, according to a recent Skytrax survey. The winner for the eighth year in a row? AirAsia. The only American carrier on the list, Virgin America, came in second.
For the second year in a row, one hotel chain’s rewards program has been chosen as the provider of the best overall benefits to travelers.
Wyndham Rewards is the top overall hotel rewards program, according to a study by WalletHub, a website that provides credit advice to consumers. Wyndham’s program appeals just as much to those who travel infrequently as it does to those who travel a lot, and it ranked highly for its ease of achieving top membership status, number of hotels where rewards can be used and minimal blackout dates, among other attributes.
WalletHub pitted 12 hotel rewards programs against one other, examining 21 key metrics, including point values, blackout dates, brand exclusions and expiration policies. The top 10 brands, in order:
1. Wyndham Rewards
2. Best Western Rewards
3. Marriott Rewards
4. Club Carlson
5. La Quinta Returns
6. Hyatt Gold Passport
7. Drury Gold Key Club
8. Hilton HHonors
9. Choice Privileges
10. The Ritz-Carlton Rewards
La Quinta Returns was deemed to offer the best rewards value, offering up to $14.17 in rewards value for every $100 the hotel guest spends. Meanwhile, Best Western is the only brand among the 12 whose points do not expire if your account stays inactive for a while. The majority of hotel rewards points expire after 18 to 24 months of inactivity.
The study also found that the majority of the 12 brands have maintained or exceeded their programs’ value this year vs. last year.
“I think the typical consumer generally overvalues the benefits of hotel rewards program membership and underestimates the commitment required to obtain those benefits,” Professor Sung H. Ham of George Washington University wrote as part of the study.
Receiving free nights in a hotel is admittedly attractive, Ham said, but it requires a big commitment from the consumer. “Even if consumers are motivated to achieve the free night, consumers may still overvalue the rewards that can be obtained from being loyal,” Ham said. “Loyal consumers are less likely to engage in price comparisons and may ultimately end up paying more for each stay to earn the free night award.”
That being said, being a part of a hotel loyalty program can often provide non-monetary benefits, such as more personalized service, says Professor Lei Huang of the State University of New York at Fredonia.
Read up on the news and stories you may have missed this week from around the travel world.
The Inventions That Ruined Travel
Have a laugh over this tongue-in-cheek list of travel abominations from the Telegraph, featuring things like Segways, wax museums and “ride-on” suitcases. Our favorite is the section on selfie sticks, or “this narcissistic weapon of Satan.”
Warning: After clicking through this stunning Maptia photo essay about Antarctica, you may find yourself researching trips to the world’s most remote continent.
From Grand Hotel to Microhotel: How Your Stay Has Changed in 200 Years
Conde Nast Traveler surveys two centuries of hotel trends, starting with the grand properties that sprang up in 19th-century Europe and extending through the chain hotels of the early 20th century and the hip boutiques of the 1980s and 1990s. The author even offers a vision of what hotels might look like in the future.
29 Travel Hacks That Even Frequent Fliers Don’t Know
Insider rounds up some clever tips that go beyond the usual travel advice, including grabbing a cab in your airport’s departure zone instead of at arrivals and keeping a small waterproof bag packed at all times with necessary chargers and cables.
Fake Service Animals and Why Airline Passengers Are Upset
South Florida’s Sun Sentinel reports on a growing trend: the rise in service and emotional support animals on planes. Some travelers are abusing the laws requiring airlines to accept service animals by pretending that their pets are traveling with them for emotional support when they’re really just trying to evade the rules and fees for bringing a pet onboard.
12 Poignant Images of Tribal Peoples Around the World
Rough Guides showcases the photos that will appear in the 2017 calendar of Survival International, an advocacy group for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world. These images capture these people’s human dignity and endangered lifestyle.
This week’s video is a mesmerizing peek into the Kyushu region of Japan.
If your desired travel experience includes not spending a lot of money and being able to interact with locals, then Homestay.com is a lodging option you’ll want to consider. Launched in 2013, Dublin-based Homestay.com allows you to book a room in a local’s home in more than 150 countries. Hosts may take you on a tour of their city, cook you a meal or simply engage in breakfast conversation and provide touring advice. Rates are surprisingly low — much lower than booking a room in someone’s home through Airbnb, for example.
We chatted with Homestay.com CEO Alan Clarke about what to expect from a stay at one of the 50,000 host properties around the world.
IndependentTraveler.com: The social interaction and insider knowledge of a destination are obvious benefits of Homestay.com. What are some benefits that might not be apparent to a new user?
Alan Clarke: It’s a great budget alternative to hotels and less crowded than hostels — and you get your own private room, not a dorm. Breakfast is included in the price and often there are other perks too: Many hosts are happy to throw in a pick-up service from the airport, laundry service, shared dinners, storing of luggage, use of the kitchen or a bicycle and more.
IT: Who tends to use this type of lodging?
AC: Solo travelers account for more than 60 percent of the bookings. It’s ideal for anyone traveling alone who wants to stay with a local in their home and share a meal or hang out. It can help you to feel safer and more confident about going somewhere you’ve never been before.
People on holiday can enjoy a culturally immersive experience, while those traveling for business can return to a friendly face at the end of a busy day instead of an empty hotel room. And 40 percent of the guests booking on Homestay.com are students, many of whom need a home [away] from home for an extended period of time.
IT: Homestay costs are surprisingly affordable. With the advent of Airbnb, Sonder, VRBO and other sites, surely you could raise your rates. Why have you kept them so low?
AC: It’s up to the hosts to set their own prices. We help them to understand the need to be competitive and educate them on how to adjust their rates for seasonality or special events. However, for many of the hosts on Homestay.com it’s as much about the people they’ll meet as it is about the extra revenue they’ll earn.
IT: How do you ensure that people stay safe when using a homestay? Have you ever had safety incidents?
AC: We encourage hosts and guests to verify their ID when signing up. It’s not compulsory, but we do recommend it. We work with a third-party provider who independently verifies the validity of the IDs. Prior to setting our hosts live for bookings our team checks the listing to ensure its authenticity.
When a guest wants to book they have the opportunity to send messages back and forth to the host, allowing them to build trust and rapport prior to making a booking. We also offer a custom video chat as part of the booking process.
And we have a customer service team on hand seven days a week to help, should an issue arise. With thousands of guest reviews, 90 percent of them five star, I can assure you that we place customer satisfaction and safety at the top of our list of priorities.
IT: Tell us about one of the most interesting homestay experiences you’ve had.
AC: While travelling in Italy I stayed with an amazing host in Florence — really close to the Ponte Vecchio. She was a certified tour guide with a passion for traditional Tuscan cooking, so you can imagine how most of my days were spent!
IT: What do you look for in a host?
AC: I’m a pretty independent traveler so for me the host that best suits my needs is someone who will mostly leave me to my own devices but is also happy to share their tips and advice if I need it. Each guest and host is different in terms of the level of interaction they want from the experience. That’s why we encourage our guests and hosts to communicate as much as possible during and after the booking process.
IT: What are some of your favorite destinations around the world?
AC: I’ve been lucky to visit many amazing places: the Base Camp of Everest, Victoria Falls in Zambia, Zanzibar, Goa, the Great Wall in China, Copacabana, Golden Gate Park, Lake Baikal in Siberia, the pubs of London, the restaurants of Paris, the cafes of Melbourne.
I think what makes me most excited about any trip is the uniqueness that each destination has to offer, which for me is a combination of everything from culture to people to architecture and landscape. Perhaps two that stand out are Biarritz in France and Kerry in Ireland. Both are coastal, beautiful locations, with deep local culture and great food and people.
IT: And where are you going next?
AC: A Christmas market in Europe with my family — our first trip abroad with our first child. Very exciting!
The delightful cottage I rented through Airbnb last month seemed to have all right elements to provide a restful long weekend — a pretty location, plenty of space to spread out, a well-appointed kitchen. But my two-night stay ended up being less than restful because I barely slept. The bed was so squeaky that every time I rolled over, the metallic oinks and squeals would wake me up.
I love that Airbnb, Home Away, VRBO and other vacation rental property websites exist, providing alternatives to hotels. But one of the downsides is the lack of consistent standards.
A new travel site called Sonder aims to correct that.
Like the other vacation rental sites, Sonder allows you to book individually owned private properties by the night. But Sonder requires that the owners meet a checklist of standards before they can be members and offer their “hometels” for rent. In fact, there are 237 items on Sonder’s checklist.
Owners must agree to have homes professionally cleaned after each stay. All properties provide consistent amenities, including speedy Wi-Fi, hotel-like bath products and kitchen essentials, including coffee and tea. And bookings are confirmed instantly; no need to wait around for the homeowner to respond, keeping your vacation plans in limbo until he or she decides whether to accept your booking. Units must be accessible via lockbox and key code; no need to coordinate with the owner to hand off a key.
The springy bed I slept on would never pass Sonder’s test — the company states that all beds are comfortable and decked out with luxury hotel-style linens.
The founders of Sonder said they came up with the idea after they arrived at a rental apartment in San Francisco. After waiting endlessly for the owner to call them back to let them know where to find the house key, they went into the apartment, only to find dog hair all over the furniture and half-eaten food in the fridge.
Right now, Sonder is only available in eight cities in the United States and Canada — Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, San Diego, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal — and others will be added soon. Even though the West Virginia cottage I rented was lacking in comfort, such a rural destination isn’t even available through Sonder. So there are tradeoffs.
For city properties, rates tend to be comparable to Airbnb, but you’ll have fewer options. For example, I searched for a $200-or-less private home in Boston for a mid-December stay. Airbnb turned up 279 properties and Sonder just 11.
If you’re seeking a private space in a city, Sonder is a great alternative to other rental sites and hotels. But for now, you’ll need to stick with the other websites if you’re seeking non-urban rentals.
Check out what you may have missed this week from around the travel world.
Airbnb Sues Over New Law Regulating New York Rentals
Airbnb continues to face challenges in New York after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill imposing major fines to hosts who illegally rent out their homes or apartments, reports the New York Times. Proponents of the law are trying to protect affordable housing by preventing people from renting out places to short-term tourists. Airbnb has filed a lawsuit to challenge the new law.
The Secret Behind Italy’s Rarest Pasta
BBC travels to the island of Sardinia to see how su filindeu — the world’s rarest pasta — is made. Only three women on the planet know the time-intensive process.
Here Comes a Wave of Change for Cuba
A National Geographic writer hops aboard the first U.S. cruise ship to visit Cuba in nearly 40 years and asks the locals how they feel about the incoming wave of American tourists.
Air Horse One: This Airline Is Strictly for the Animals
Every wondered how racehorses travel to the Kentucky Derby and other major events? USA Today takes us inside Air Horse One, a plane designed specifically to carry animals. Fun fact: The plane ascends and descends more gently than regular commercial flights to avoid startling or jostling the horses.
Airbus Offers a Peek at Its Flying Taxi
Anyone who’s ever sat in a traffic jam has wished they could simply fly their car over the mess — and CNN reports that Airbus is working on technology that could someday let us do just that. The “pilotless passenger aircraft” would take off and land vertically, with no need for a runway.
This week’s video offers a look at one of France’s most incredible tourist sites: Mont St-Michel.
One of the pleasures of staying in a hotel is enjoying all the little luxuries that come with your room — slipping into a bathrobe or pair of slippers, trying out a new brand of body lotion. But for many frequent travelers hotel amenities leave a little to be desired, even at expensive properties.
Cecilia Freeman, a member of the IndependentTraveler.com community team, recently found herself disappointed by the in-room coffee at a Seattle hotel for which she paid $275 a night. “The coffee was Starbucks, but they stocked these generic fake sugar and creamer packets with a useless napkin and a stirry straw,” she told me. “Every time I travel and stay in any level of hotel, I always get the same lame amenity pack for the coffee. I wondered if Starbucks would be happy its coffee was accompanied by this awful generic stuff.”
It spurred her to look at other common hotel amenities with a more critical eye: “Shower caps? Who uses those? Shoeshine sponges? The list goes on … the whole amenity package for all hotels needs a redo.”
In fairness, I remember one occasion several years back when I did use a hotel shower cap — but that’s one time out of hundreds of hotel stays. Why don’t hotels cut some of these rarely used amenities and offer free Wi-Fi instead? In an informal survey a few years back, we discovered that it was the hotel amenity travelers want most.
I reached out to a couple of other well-traveled colleagues to get their perspective on hotel amenities. Brittany Chrusciel, an associate editor for IndependentTraveler.com’s sister site, Cruise Critic, wants to ban bar soap at the sink. “I don’t mind a bar in the shower, but I’d much rather have liquid soap for hand washing,” she said. “Half the time there’s no soap dish, so the bar slithers all over the sink and makes a mess. Plus, it’s a waste when you only use it for a day or two. A hand soap dispenser is so much neater and more convenient.”
My own biggest pet peeve? Hotels that only offer a single pillow on each side of a bed, with no extras in the closet. Cruise Critic senior editor Chris Gray Faust agreed: “I like having a fortress of pillows.”
There are some hotel amenities we love, including bottled water (preferably free), hypoallergenic pillows, facewash and cotton swabs. Best of all: a little note that says “Forgot something? Call the front desk” with an offer to supply things like toothbrushes, toothpaste or razors.
There’s a new hotel site for travelers who want to do good while exploring the world: KindTraveler.com. Launched in summer 2016, the site has partnered with hotels in the U.S., the Caribbean and Mexico to encourage travelers to donate to charity in exchange for a discounted nightly rate.
Plug in your travel dates, and you’ll get a list of available hotels and rates. Click on one, and you’ll see how much of a discount you can get for a donation of $10 a night to charity. For a February stay at the upscale 1 Hotel South Beach in Miami, I was offered a $95 discount per night with my donation, taking the rate from $731/night to $636/night. (If you book directly on the hotel’s website without making a donation through Kind Traveler, the lowest available rate is $640 a night — so the savings aren’t necessarily as large as they might appear.)
At the James Chicago, a $10/night donation took the price from $149 to $124 per night for my February dates. (On the hotel’s website, the lowest available rate was $130 a night.)
When you’re ready to book, you can select the hotel’s recommended charity or choose your own. The site’s causes fall into 10 categories, such as wildlife, human rights, environment, education, health and disaster relief. Charities within these categories include the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Arbor Day Foundation, among others. You can pay for your booking with a credit card or use PayPal.
The site’s offerings are limited so far, with fewer than two dozen hotels, most of which appear to cost more than $200 a night. The properties are mostly boutique hotels and have been vetted for “Kind Factors” such as eco-friendly toiletries, recycling programs and donations to their local communities.
While the site’s offerings are too limited to benefit most travelers right now, the idea is a worthy one, and we’ll be keeping an eye on the site as it expands. Check it out yourself at KindTraveler.com.
The last minutes of summer are ticking away, with just two days left until the official start of autumn. So while the final countdown is on, I count down for you a batch of intriguing things in the world of travel that will help you decide where to go this fall (and winter), and how to get there in the smartest possible way.
10 Transport Apps to Help You Get Around
A technology reporter for the Guardian reveals his picks for the best 10 apps to help you navigate various transportation options. While the article is U.K.-centric, most of the apps are applicable to other cities around the world.
9 New Hotels Worthy of Your Instagram Account
Vogue magazine runs down nine new properties around the world that are chic enough to appear as a square image in your social media feed, including an artistic enclave on the beach in Nicaragua. Perhaps one will be on your travel list for this fall?
8 Adventurous Ski Holidays for 2016-17
Are you a skier? These are the hottest (coldest?) ski experiences in the world this coming season, according to the Guardian. Heliskiing in British Columbia late this fall, anyone?
5 Underrated European Destinations
Romania and Montenegro are among a handful of spots in Europe that more travelers should make a priority to see, says a woman who quit her New York City job to travel the world. This autumn’s shoulder season could be the ideal time to check some out.
4 Affordable Ways to Travel Long Term
Huffington Post travel blogger Shannon Ullman suggests that volunteering abroad not only is personally rewarding, but also allows you to stay in a place for a longer period of time without spending a lot of money. She offers three other ways you can afford to travel longer.
2 People Traveling for a Year on $20,000
Writer Chris Guillebeau profiles an Arizona couple who ditched their stay-in-one-place lifestyle and hit the road, allowing housesitting opportunities to determine their destinations. Hard to believe they financed nearly the whole year merely by selling their car!
1 B&B Shaped Like a Beagle
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you suddenly discover a bed and breakfast built in the shape of a floppy-eared dog. The blog My Modern Met features the Dog Bark Park Inn in Cottonwood, Idaho, a two-bedroom cottage shaped like a beagle. Go fetch?