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zodiac aerospace face to face seatsWoe to the flier who’s stuck anywhere near a screaming infant, a guy who snores or a woman who’s unaware of a little something called deodorant. It’s bad enough when you’re wedged next to an undesirable flight companion, but imagine sitting face to face with one (or all) of them.

As reported by Runway Girl Network, a new airplane concept developed by seat manufacturer Zodiac Aerospace would have the window and aisle passengers facing forward and the middle passenger facing backward. Although studies have shown that backward-facing seats are actually safer in the event of an emergency, this would add a whole new level to our loathing of the middle seat and likely create an additional way for airlines to charge for the privilege of sitting near the window or aisle.

Facing your fellow travelers would make it that much harder to politely ignore them if all you want to do is catch a catnap or read that book you’ve been dying to start. Quick! Avert your eyes, lest the overly chatty woman across from you decide to strike up a conversation about her horrible layover, dislike of cats or recent bunion surgery. And imagine trying to eat your airline-provided peanuts in peace without feeling like you’re sitting at a family dinner. Talk about awkward.

10 Annoying Habits of Our Fellow Travelers

There are also some concerns among fliers about whether the seats’ design would impede the exit of passengers during an evacuation. Some argue it could be a hazard, but others think the design’s fold-up construction (much like a theater seat) might actually help to speed things up by offering extra room while entering and exiting each row.

For now, this arrangement is still in its conceptual stage, and it’s only being proposed for short-haul flights. And there’s a silver lining; since the seats would alternate with regard to the direction they’re facing, passengers would no longer have to worry about fighting for room on armrests or tray tables — a minor victory when personal space is at a premium.

Face-to-face flying: Love it or hate it? Share your opinion in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

airport baggage claimYou’re a lucky traveler if you’ve never experienced an air travel glitch. Whether you’ve been bumped from an overbooked flight, had a bag lost or experienced a delay, airline hiccups are a fact of life. A lesser-known fact, however, is that the law might entitle you to compensation if your flight doesn’t go as planned — and we don’t mean just in the form of a better seat or a credit for a future booking. But the airlines’ convoluted policies make it intimidating for most travelers to pursue claims.

Cue AirHelp. Popular in Europe, the company officially brought its services to the U.S. market earlier this month, helping displaced air travelers to seek retribution. As we note in our story on bumping and overbooking, you could be eligible for a refund of up to $1,300 if you’re bumped from an overbooked flight. But who has time to research, file and follow up on claims?

AirHelp does. While we haven’t gone through the entire claim reporting process, it seems easy enough. The initial five-step system asks you to 1) choose whether you were delayed, canceled or bumped; 2) list your departure and arrival cities; 3) tell AirHelp whether your flight was direct or had connections; 4) enter the flight number and the date of the flight; and 5) provide information like your name, email address, reservation number, total time of delay and reason given by the airline.

Airport Delays: 6 Ways to Cope

After you submit your claim, AirHelp will determine whether you’re entitled to some sort of refund and, if so, follow up with the airline on your behalf (for which you give your permission by signing a power of attorney document).

The upside? If you’re not paid, you owe nothing for AirHelp’s services. If they score you some cash, they keep 25 percent. It seems like a lot at first, but without AirHelp’s assistance, it’s unlikely you’d be seeing anything at all.

The downside? If the service catches on, there’s no telling whether already struggling airlines might reflect their losses in the form of higher ticket prices. (AirHelp claims that 98 percent of eligible passengers don’t currently apply for compensation.)

What are your thoughts? Would you try AirHelp?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

airport plane woman gate suitcase United Airlines generated a collective groan from travelers over the weekend by saying it will be strictly enforcing its carry-on baggage requirements, which limit each passenger to one personal item (like a purse, laptop or briefcase) and one carry-on bag with a maximum size of 9 x 14 x 22 inches.

The issue, however, isn’t with the size of the carry-on luggage allowed; other major carriers, including Delta and American Airlines/US Airways, have the same dimension restrictions. Instead, what’s upsetting is that United will now be charging checked-bag fees for any carry-ons that must be gate-checked due to noncompliance — even if passengers have used their carry-ons for years with no trouble fitting them in the overhead bins.

Of course it’s annoying when you see fellow flyers waddling onboard under the weight of a purse, a backpack, a computer bag and a carry-on that you can just tell exceeds regulation. But instead of making the boarding more efficient, charging for gate-checked bags is certain to slow down the process.

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

United also charges for the first checked bag for each passenger, so it’s understandable that many would attempt to bring slightly larger carry-ons to avoid baggage fees. (Meanwhile, two popular U.S.-based airlines — JetBlue and Southwest Airlines — allow each passenger to check at least one checked bag at no charge. To boot, the carry-on dimensions for both lines exceed those of United and the other major carriers at 10 x 16 x 24 inches.)

Ultimately, United’s decision to charge for the gate-checking of carry-ons reminds us quite a bit of the policy of ultra-discounter Spirit Airlines: one personal item can be brought for free, but passengers are charged as much as $100 per bag — each way! — for the privilege of boarding with a carry-on that won’t fit under the seat in front of them.

At this point, it wouldn’t surprise us one bit if United eventually starts charging for things like bathroom privileges (don’t laugh — this was proposed a few years ago by European discounter Ryanair) and oxygen.

4 Signs You Have a Packing Problem

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

classroom polish studentsThroughout my travels, I’ve learned that the best way for globetrotters to immerse themselves in a destination and its culture is to stay for as long as possible and mingle with locals daily. That can be difficult for average folks like me who hold jobs and can’t exactly afford to scamper off for weeks at a time. But there are ways to do it inexpensively — like teaching, for example.

English teachers are in high demand in countries like Chile, China, Thailand, Spain, Poland, Italy and France, and programs exist to send willing native speakers abroad for free (or at least to cover their costs while they’re in town) in an effort to bolster student learning.

Take, for example, the Teaching English in Poland program, run by the Kosciuszko Foundation. I applied and spent one month of my first post-college summer at an English immersion camp, instructing teens in the tiny town of Limanowa. The program paid for everything but my flights: housing, food, and trips to places like Krakow, Warsaw and Zakopane on weekends. It even provided a small stipend, which was a welcome surprise at the end of my time there.

Living Abroad: 4 Ways to Make It Happen

I made tons of amazing friends with my fellow American teachers, as well as the Polish staff. I’m still in touch with several of them and with many of the students I taught. I quickly adapted to a life with no air-conditioning, no baseball (although we did try to teach the students how to play), crosses on the walls of every classroom, and surpluses of churches and vodka. I took a semester of Polish in college before embarking on the adventure, but my ability to actually speak it improved markedly with each day.

Other “programs” aren’t really programs at all, however. In fact, English-speaking travelers are often approached to teach while they’re already abroad — no experience needed. In China, for instance, teachers providing private English lessons aren’t required to have an education background or even a work visa.

If diving into a new place and imparting knowledge while doing it sound appealing, be sure you’re signing up for something reputable. Sites such as InterExchange.org, TransitionsAbroad.com and TeachAway.com are good places to start your research. If you’re being compensated for your time (or if the program is paying for your expenses), keep in mind that your goal should be to serve as an educator first and a tourist second. Even if you never venture beyond the town in which you’re staying, you’ll be surprised by how much you gain just from spending time with your students; you’ll learn as much from them as they will from you.

Living Abroad: 12 Tips from Travelers Who’ve Been There

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

magellan's card size led travel lightThere’s not much that can take the place of a good book when I’m trying to kill time on a long-haul flight, but airplane reading lamps never quite give me enough light. Enter Magellan’s Card Size LED Travel Light. It claims to charge itself in one hour via a USB cable and provide up to two hours of light.

So, did it work? The short answer is yes, but there are caveats. Read on for the pros and cons.

What We Didn’t Like
Although this little baby only takes one hour to charge, it’s done by USB cable, which means it’s not super-convenient if you’re traveling without a laptop or an adapter for a regular wall outlet. We also found that, once charged, the light started to die out after only 90 minutes — 30 minutes shy of the two-hour usage time the packaging promises.

What We Liked
The travel light charges rapidly (assuming you have a proper place to charge it), and it’s definitely compact — the width and height of a standard credit card, to be exact. It’s a space-saving plus for someone like me who opposes e-readers on principle and travels with at least two bulky novels at all times. It easily turns on and off with the push of a button, and it’s got three different light strengths, so you can conserve battery power if you find that the highest settings are too bright. The USB cord also wraps right around the base for easy storage, and the bendable stem allows you to position the light wherever you need it.

Expert Packing Tips for 4 Common Trips

All things considered, this product is a win, especially at the affordable price of $20. Want one of your very own? Leave a comment below for a chance to win the travel light. Enter by 11:59 p.m. ET on February 17, 2014. We’ll pick one winner at random. 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 Diane Lieberman. Congratulations! Please check back in the future for other chances to win great travel products.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

couple trip planning map laptopOn a recent work trip to Amsterdam, my first visit to this iconic city, I decided to treat myself to a little vacation time. My goal was to explore as much as I could within the four free days I had allotted myself, but, as is the case in most big cities, there were so many things I wanted to see and do: the Anne Frank House, the Keukenhof’s flowers, the Poezenboot, a canal boat tour, museums galore and, of course, the infamous Red Light District.

I figured my best bet would be to organize attractions of interest geographically to avoid wasting time racing back and forth across the city. The problem, though, was that I had no idea how to get started.
A quick Google search yielded a glorious link to Yahoo! Travel’s Trip Planner, which is still one of the most helpful travel tools I’ve ever used. Sure, it’s a fairly simple program, but that’s the beauty of it.

Sign up for an account (or use an existing one), create a name for your trip and search for things to do in your destination, either by checking them off of a prepopulated list of the most popular or by searching for things you already know you can’t miss. After adding them to your trip file, you can then click to see them arranged on a map of your destination, making it easy to group attractions by neighborhood. You can also share your trip with your travel companions … or with anyone who’s not going and wants to live vicariously through your itinerary.

Plus, as is always important when you’re trying to save precious time, you can click through to each attraction’s website to find hours of operation and purchase tickets in advance.

How to Create the Perfect Itinerary

If you’re already privy to the wonders of Trip Planner, you’re ahead of the curve. If you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for? Even if you don’t have your next vacation planned just yet, you can still create mockups for trips to every place on your bucket list so you’re ready when it comes time to book.

Which itinerary planning tools have you found most useful?

5 Trip Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

upside down house polandYes, we’re seasoned world travelers, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t occasionally enamored with kitschy roadside attractions. Be they weird landmarks, supernatural places, wonky museums or crazy theme parks, there are lots of curiosities that appeal to our roving sense of wonder.

Take, for instance, this sampling of some of the oddest homes we’ve found, both in the United States and abroad. Perhaps you’ll feel like making a pit stop on your next journey.

Beer Can House: Houston, TX
Former owner John Milkovisch began inlaying rocks, marbles and aluminum on his front and back yards in 1968 after claiming he was tired of taking care of the lawn. Aluminum roofing and siding followed over an 18-year period. The strangest part? The aluminum is all made of beer cans — including the beer-can-lid garland that hangs from the roof. It gets a bit noisy when the wind blows, but the material evidently cuts down on energy costs. After Milkovisch’s death in 1988, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art took it on as a restoration project, and it’s open to visitors on weekend afternoons.

Nautilus House: Mexico City, Mexico
A couple in Mexico City hired an architect to aid them in building themselves a home — a home that just happens to look like a giant seashell. Complete with a giant stained-glass window and several other porthole-like openings, the home is bit reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, boasting tiny vegetation-lined paths that wend between rooms, all of which are furnished with cartoonish furniture that’s fit for a hobbit.

12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of

Whimzeyland: Safety Harbor, FL
This home, purchased in 1985 as a plain-looking dwelling by current occupants (and artists) Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda, is cheerfully decorated with bright colors and knickknacks galore. Among bottle trees and other whimsical found objects are the dozens of bowling balls that can be seen throughout the grounds’ landscaping. Years ago, the pair obtained bowling balls for free at a local flea market and used them to liven up the place, painting more dismally colored ones for an even more happy effect.

Upside-Down House: Szymbark, Poland
At this dizzying property, visitors can walk around inside the structure’s upside-down rooms, which allegedly mess with the equilibria of many. Designed by Daniel Czapiewski to represent the fall of communism, it was reportedly cumbersome for builders to complete, due to the topsy-turvy nature of, well, just about everything. Bonus: If you turn your camera upside down before snapping a selfie, it’ll look like you’re hanging from the ceiling.

Winchester Mystery House: San Jose, CA
Built by Sarah Winchester, the wife of William Wirt Winchester (as in Winchester rifles), the mansion cost $5.5 million to build and contains 160 rooms. Construction went on for years as Sarah claimed she needed to accommodate the spirits of those who died at the hands of the guns her husband helped to produce. It’s now a major tourist attraction that features a museum, a restaurant and expensive tours. Hours vary seasonally.

Photos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

Which of these crazy houses would you most want to visit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

stuffed animal suitcase travelToy travel — paying to send a stuffed animal or doll on a trip in lieu of going on one yourself — isn’t new. In fact, we’ve written about it before. We’ve never been fond of the idea of putting our hard-earned cash toward a trip for an inanimate object rather than ourselves. But then we stumbled across a company doing it for more heart-warming reasons than simply making (or wasting) money.

According to ABC News, Unagi Travel, a Japanese travel agency specializing in tours for stuffed toys, sends fake furry friends to places their owners can’t go due to illness or disability. After paying a fee and mailing their toys to Tokyo, where Unagi is based, clients can track their toys’ travels via the company’s Facebook page. At the conclusion of the trip, the animals are mailed back to their owners at no additional charge, along with souvenir photos. According to Unagi’s website, the entire process takes two to three weeks, depending on the adventure chosen.

Our Favorite Tokyo Hotels

Despite its admirable purpose, Unagi’s services are still a bit quirky, not to mention limited. There are currently four tours available to Kyoto, Tokyo, a traditional onsen (hot spring) and a “mystery” location. Rates range from $35 to $95, not including each stuffed animal’s outbound travel, which could be pricey for clients not living in Japan.

Some might still consider it a waste of money, but for those who can’t get out to explore new places, we wager it’s money well spent. In some of the more fortunate cases, owners of the plush participants have been able to retrace their stuffed animals’ steps when their health improved.

What do you think? Do you have a favorite stuffed animal? Would you send it on a trip without you if you were unable to go? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

j bullivant solar backpackAlways excited to test out gadgets that might make my travels easier, I set off for Alaska last month with the Solar Backpack from J. Bullivant, a company that specializes in what it calls “Urban Survival Gear.” The pack is equipped with enough pockets and compartments to fit everything but the kitchen sink, as well as built-in solar panels for charging what’s known as a Personal Power Generator (PPG) — a tiny power pack for charging a cell phone or iPad when your devices are dead and there just aren’t enough outlets.

When it comes to the bag’s construction, I have no complaints. It’s comfortable, attractive, lightweight and durable. (Anything that survives my chronic overpacking has to be.) The storage options are plentiful, with spots specifically designed to hold everything from laptops and pens to car keys and spare change. There are even hidden compartments for more important items like passports and wallets.

The Ultimate Guide to Travel Packing

But this backpack’s claim to fame is its ability to charge electronics — and unfortunately, in that regard it was a bit of a bust. After two days of putting the pack in the sun for several hours, I saw no increase in the charge it gave to the PPG. It does work well if you use the included power/car adapter to plug the PPG directly into the wall to charge, but if you’re going to spend time and effort doing that, you might as well just plug in your cell phone or laptop or whatever it is you need the PPG for in the first place.

Of course, the semi-functionality of the product wouldn’t be such a big deal if it were priced in line with other backpacks. But for the most basic model, you can expect to shell out nearly $200. The amount you’ll pay increases from there, depending on what else — pepper spray, hazmat mask, water purification system, ballistic shield — you choose to add to your paranoia pack. (And no, we’re not kidding about anything in that list.)

All things considered, this is a great item to own if you’re active and need to keep your things organized on the go. The PPG is an added bonus if you have access to a car or wall outlet, but don’t get too hung up on the solar panel “cool” factor.

The Suitcase That Beats Bed Bugs

Want to try it for yourself? We’re giving away our (gently used) Solar Backpack. Just leave us a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on October 31, 2013. We’ll pick one person at random to win the backpack. 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. Frannie Heath has won the backpack. Congratulations! Keep an eye on our blog for further chances to win.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

suitcase boots Last Thursday I returned from my first trip to Alaska. Everything from the views to the food was fantastic. But part of what made my trip so enjoyable was that I was ready for just about anything, because I had read up on what I needed and had brought three specific must-pack items.

Layers: Having read many articles on how to prepare, I still struggled to find outfits that were suitable for both warm and cold weather without grossly overpacking. What I finally settled on were two pairs of jeans, several short- and long-sleeved shirts, a sweatshirt, a light jacket and a fleece jacket, with a pair of gloves and a headband to keep my ears warm. I kept an umbrella and poncho handy, too. “They” aren’t kidding when they say the weather can change at the drop of a hat. In Juneau, it was rainy and chilly, but not cold. In Skagway, it was cloudy and in the 40′s. In Ketchikan (which gets 13 feet of rain per year), it was sunny and in the 70′s.

Interactive Packing List

Proper Footwear: After my clothes, I tossed plenty of socks and three pairs of sturdy shoes into my suitcase, factoring in one pair for wet weather (waterproofed hiking boots), one pair for cold weather (sheepskin boots) and one pair for regular weather (sneakers or tennis shoes). Boy, were my feet happy.

How to Pack for a Galapagos Cruise

The Best Camera You Can Beg, Borrow or Buy: Sure, certain things in Alaska are overrated. (You can see similar mountains in several other places.) But you’ll want to snap some once-in-a-lifetime shots of what’s not so common elsewhere: grizzlies, dog-sled teams, Tlingit totems and, of course, glaciers, just to name a few. Most standard smartphones these days come with cameras that will do the trick just fine (and often better than any mainstream digital camera), so if you don’t own one, look into upgrading or borrowing one from a friend. You won’t regret it.

Best Local Spots to See Wildlife

– written by Ashley Kosciolek