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ebags exo suitcaseOn a recent 10-day trip to Norway, I packed everything but the kitchen sink into one of eBags’ EXO 2.0 24-inch spinner suitcases. If you’ve been considering a new piece of luggage, you’ll want to read on — not just for a rundown of my experience with the bag but also for a chance to win an EXO 2.0 of your very own.

Exterior
Liked: The exterior of the EXO 2.0 is made of polycarbonate, which means it’s insanely durable. The case I tested made it through four flights with only minor scratches, thanks to the crosshatch-type pattern on the shell, which helps to reduce the visibility of such mishaps.

Didn’t Like: Although functional, the crosshatch exterior design doesn’t exactly look nice. I was initially excited when I learned the bag I’d be trying was red, but I quickly discovered red isn’t as uncommon on airport conveyor belts as you might think. I’d recommend trying one of the other available bright colors like purple or yellow. (Standard colors like black and gray are options too.)

Interior
Liked: There’s a ton of space, and I found that the main compartment’s straps helped to keep my abundance of clothing contained. A separate compartment, offset by a full swath of zippable mesh, was great for separating everything from shoes to dirty laundry from the rest of my stuff.

Didn’t Like: There are no additional pockets or compartments, which can make the packing of smaller items a challenge. eBags touts the fact that the EXO 2.0′s main compartment has a removable, adjustable shelf (attached to the interior of the suitcase via Velcro) to keep packed items from shifting or crushing each other. I didn’t find it to be all that useful because I packed enough to ensure no shifting would take place. It might come in handy for separating clean clothes from dirty ones or your clothes from those of a travel companion if you’re sharing luggage.

Wheels
Liked: The wheels are durable with a double-wheel construction, which means that your bag is less likely to tip over if you leave it upright.

Didn’t Like: Because of the dual-wheel configuration, the suitcase has a wider base, making it a little more difficult to maneuver than one with a single-wheel design. But the wider base is also what keeps the bag from toppling over, so it’s a trade-off.

Handles
Liked: All handles (adjustable handle used for dragging and top/side handles used for lifting) are sleek in appearance and are nearly flush with the sides of the case for a streamlined look. Plus, the extendable handle used for pulling the bag adjusts to three different heights.

Didn’t Like: Because the handles are recessed with little clearance, it can be difficult to get your fingers under them to lift luggage in a hurry (for example, grabbing your bag off of the conveyor belt). Combine that with the suitcase’s rough crosshatch exterior, and you’ve got a recipe for skinned knuckles. I also found the extendable handle to be a little on the flimsy side, given the overall size of the luggage.

Lock
ebags exo suitcase zippers lockLiked: As someone who routinely uses removable luggage locks, I love the idea of a suitcase that’s got a lock built in. No more worrying about losing the lock or fumbling to be sure it’s passed through both zippers when you try to re-secure everything. The built-in version is TSA-friendly, and the instructions for using it are a piece of cake.

Didn’t Like: Although setting the lock’s combination was easy, it took me a few minutes to figure out that the zipper pulls actually slide into openings to the right of the lock in order to secure the case. Beyond that, it took me even longer to discover that the only way to keep the zipper from partially gaping when locked (leaving a small opening into the main suitcase compartment) is to crisscross the zippers and then secure them. (The bag’s specs do mention that it has “patent-pending cross-over X zipper pullers,” but I had no idea what that meant.)

Overall
The EXO 2.0 is a durable, lightweight suitcase that offers some innovative features with the crisscross zippers, interior shelf and crosshatch exterior design. It’s currently available on the eBags website for $160, and it comes with a lifetime eBags warranty, exchange or return. In spite of the minor issues I had, it’s a solid choice overall.

If you’d like to enter to win a brand-new EXO 2.0 hardside suitcase, leave us a message in the comments by 11:59 p.m. ET on September 1, 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.

If you can’t wait until we pick a winner to do some eBags shopping, click here to get 15 percent off your purchase and free shipping on orders of more than $49. This discount is good through September 4, 2014.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

hotel monaco philadelphiaHotel rewards programs are great if you frequent the same chains on a regular basis, but the offerings and perks are pretty standard, as are the ways of accruing elite status. After a while, free Wi-Fi and extra nights all start to sound the same.

Apparently, that’s what the folks over at Kimpton thought too when they unveiled the chain’s new Kimpton Karma loyalty system. Replacing the brand’s former InTouch program, Kimpton Karma offers four tiers; you’ll be registered for Tier 1 by just signing up. You’ll reach Tier 2 with three stays or 10 nights (whichever comes first), Tier 3 with seven stays or 20 nights, and the Inner Circle with 14 stays or 40 nights.

The perks for everyone — even Tier 1 — include free Wi-Fi and a minibar credit, but the extras for higher tiers are pretty enticing: free nights, priority late check-out, dining offers and even direct access to Kimpton’s CEO when you reach the Inner Circle level.

7 Smart Reasons to Join a Hotel Rewards Program

The best part, however, is that you can get rewards in ways that go beyond just staying another night. In a statement about the new program, Kimpton says guests can get credit for things like mentioning their hotel on social media, booking directly through the chain’s website or even traveling with a pet. Sounds good to us!

What do you think? Do you belong to any hotel rewards programs? What do you like most about them, and what do you think can be done to jazz them up a bit? Leave your comments below.

10 Hidden Ways to Save at Hotels

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

airbus bicycle seatHere’s another cringe-worthy tale to file in your “what the … ?” folder: the Los Angeles Times reports that Airbus filed a patent last year for fold-down bicycle seats (similar to theater or stadium seats but shaped like those you’d find on a bicycle), which would prop passengers in a near-upright position, thereby increasing plane capacity.

The worst part is that they wouldn’t have the comforts of even the most standard airplane seats on other aircraft. The lack of tray tables means passengers would have one less thing to worry about during takeoff and landing, but what sort of safety issues would be created by the absence of proper backrests and headrests in the event of an emergency — or something as minor as turbulence?

How Flying Coach Could Save Your Life

Diagrams show that the seats would be suspended on what appear to be large poles, placed horizontally in each row. That raises the question of where, exactly, fliers would store carry-on items that usually go underneath the seats in front of them. Although passenger capacity would increase with the use of these seats, it’s unlikely overhead bin space would do the same, thereby compounding the problem.

Airbus argues that passengers would be willing to endure the seats for several hours in exchange for cheap airfare costs, created by airlines’ ability to squeeze more passengers onto their planes. If the seats were, say, $20, perhaps we’d bite (depending on the length of the flight, of course), but it seems unlikely that adding a few additional paying customers to the mix would lower costs that significantly.

Face-to-Face Flights? New Seats Could Force Flier Interaction

The Los Angeles Times quotes an Airbus spokeswoman who says that “many, if not most, of these concepts will never be developed.” Here’s hoping this design stays in the realm of the imaginary.

Would you pay to sit on a bicycle seat for the duration of a flight? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

sick flu bedWhether it’s courtesy of jet lag’s effect on my body or the sniffling/sneezing/coughing child in the seat behind me, it seems I return home with some sort of cold or sinus issue every time I travel, leaving me feeling like I’ve been hit by a bus.

Enter Sickweather, a website and app that use social media posts to generate alerts that tell you whether illness is running rampant in your area. Simply set alerts for wherever you’re traveling — or for your home town — and be informed when the over-sharers on Facebook start chattering about their (or their children’s) latest maladies. Sickweather CEO Graham Dodge compares the technology used to gather data and tie it to a geographic location to the Doppler radar used to predict weather.

Pros: It’s always nice to know what you’re up against, abroad or in your own backyard. Imagine catching the flu while on vacation because you were unaware it was going around the city you were visiting, or contracting Norovirus during a trip to see Great Aunt Edna at the retirement home because you had no idea there was a local outbreak. It can often be easier to prevent illness than to fight it off after you’ve already gotten sick. The alerts offer solid reminders about hand washing and other precautions. Plus, the service and the app (available for iPhone now and Android later this summer) are both free.

18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling

Cons: Just because an acquaintance of yours tweets that her daughter has strep throat, it doesn’t mean she’s actually had the illness medically diagnosed. But Dodge tells us that with enough people reporting, the occasional misdiagnosis doesn’t matter: “The research of our advisors from Johns Hopkins University has concluded that this anecdotal data has a high correlation to clinical data provided by the CDC.” Right now, the service only gathers social media results that are in English, but Dodge says that the company will branch out as it grows. It’s worth noting that the app’s alerts will be useless if you’re planning to travel abroad with your phone in airplane mode, and although international alerts are available via the app, international maps are still in the works.

Would you try this app? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

American Airlines seat chartWhen checking in for an American Airlines flight last week, I noticed that I hadn’t been given a seat assignment, and all that remained were for-fee options, the least expensive of which would have set me back $27. I was confirmed on the flight and knew that if I held off until the day of departure, I’d likely be given the more expensive seat for no charge.

That was exactly what happened, but what didn’t escape my notice during the online check-in process was the description of what, exactly, one would receive for his or her extra $27:

“Easy access to overhead bins.” Golly, that’s just swell, but what does it mean? Do I get to stow my carry-on before the other passengers, thereby eliminating the need for me to gate-check my bag? Do I have access to a special stepstool to help me reach the overhead bin? Or, better yet, am I entitled to the services of a baggage butler who will load my stuff into the bin for me? I mean, seriously, is this really giving me any sort of advantage?

“A seat with standard legroom.” Uh … did you say standard? Heck, who wouldn’t be impressed by something as compelling as “standard.” So, what you’re telling me is that I’m getting the same amount of legroom as everyone else who didn’t pay $27? Forgive me if my expectation of more for, well, more is presumptuous, but something doesn’t quite add up here.

How to Score the Best Airplane Seat

“A streamlined experience at the airport.” I’m sorry, but unless this means I get to arrive a half hour before takeoff and bypass security, it’s not a streamlined experience.


“Moveable armrest.” Ok, this just seals the deal. Who knew armrests could move? Mind. Blown.

I thought perhaps I was misunderstanding something about how great these upcharge seats really are. An attempt to contact the airline for an explanation of the aforementioned “perks” was met with a lovely 20-minute wait on hold, after which I hung up.

Do you pay extra for “special” seats when you fly? Have you found them to actually be “special”? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

inkwell and penDid you know that Monday was Limerick Day? According to DaysoftheYear.com, it’s held each year on May 12 to honor the birthday of Edward Lear, who popularized the short poems and named them after the Irish city of Limerick.

To celebrate the day, you’ll find some creations of our very own below — travel-themed, of course.

Today we’re writing a blog
About Shanghai and Tokyo and Prague.
How ’bout Barcelona?
You want to go, don’t ya,
To London, all shrouded in fog?

Australia‘s a fun place to play,
But the trip takes almost all day.
So start in the morning,
But here’s a fair warning:
Your connecting flight’s on delay.

Why not head to the equator,
Where you’ll lie on the beach till much later?
Be sure to use sunscreen.
The heat can be quite mean,
So ask for a drink from the waiter.

Bucket list places abound,
But they’re not that easily found.
Antarctica’s pricey,
And Egypt is dicey.
Maybe save them for next time around.

Now it’s time to start packing.
Make sure that nothing is lacking.
Camera and clothes
And a suitcase that rolls:
Check out our list, and get cracking.

We’d love to hear your travel limericks! Write your own, and post it in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

living roomWhenever I’ve got a long-haul flight coming up, I console myself by vowing to sleep for several hours … or at least try to. I don’t know who I’m kidding, though; I have a difficult time sleeping upright while crammed next to complete strangers. What if I snore or drool? What if my head ends up on someone’s shoulder? Or — gasp — what if I miss beverage service?

If you’ve got a long flight and $21,000 extra dollars to spend (each way, according to Mashable), you can test out Etihad Airways’ multi-room suite, dubbed “The Residence.”

Sleeping on Planes

Found only on the upper level of A380 planes, The Residence offers accommodations that include a private living room, bedroom and bathroom. Oh, and did I mention there’s also a butler? To top it off, passengers also have access to more than 750 hours of TV programming (to use with their complimentary noise-canceling headphones) and full mobile and Wi-Fi services while in the air.

A second grade of private cabins on the A380′s upper level is the “First Apartments” class, which features reclining seats, beds and stocked minibars.

Although Etihad isn’t the first airline to offer beds, it’s the first to offer entire private suites.

With all of these uncommon in-flight amenities, you’ll never have to worry about snoring or missing the dinner trolley again.

How Flying Coach Could Save Your Life

If you had an extra $21,000, would you spend it on a one-way flight? Share your thoughts below.

–written by Ashley Kosciolek

airlines behaving badlyThis post is part of our “Airlines Behaving Badly” series, which chronicles the oft-wicked ways of the air travel industry.

Regional carrier Frontier Airlines plans to lower its fares by adding a slew of new charges for things that used to come standard for economy-class passengers — like carry-on bags.

In a statement, the airline refers to the change as “unbundling” and says it’s “enabling customers to choose and pay for only the products they want to truly customize their flight.”

Gee, thanks for the favor.

Not only has the line compressed its former fare structure into just two types — Economy and Classic Plus — it has also introduced a discount club called Discount Den, which will allow passengers to access special savings (for a fee, of course — which has yet to be revealed).

“You can choose an all-in fare by purchasing Classic Plus, or only pay for what items matter to you with our Economy tickets,” the airline’s Facebook page optimistically chirps. “When you purchase our Economy fare, you start with our lowest fares and then add on the items that you want such as carry-on bags, advanced seat assignments, and onboard beverages.”

Many customers aren’t buying that argument, though: “Haha! I just read your email – $25 for a carry-on?” says Andrea Lee on Facebook. “$3 starting price for the ability to choose a seat to sit in? I had to check out your Facebook page to see if this was a joke….”

“Are the ‘new low fares’ not loaded yet?” asks Christine Malinconico Rhodes. “I am not seeing any competitive fares for the places I go!”

“#neveragain,” adds Jayson Vonfreizer.

How to Hack Your Way to a Cheaper Airfare

In its FAQs about the changes, which went into effect on April 28, Frontier boasts that the unbundling has decreased Economy base fares by more than 10 percent. Although Frontier answered some of our other questions, its reps still won’t say what the percentage increase in Economy fares will be if passengers choose to add all of the amenities that are now a la carte.

If you want to bring a carry-on bag, you’ll be shelling out anywhere from $20 to $50 for the privilege, depending on when you make the payment. (It’s cheapest if you pay when you book, most expensive if you pay at the gate.) Oh, and in case you were wondering, you’ll still have to pony up for checked bags too, but you’ll pay less for a checked bag than a carry-on. Frontier spokesperson Kate O’Malley says fewer carry-ons equal a more streamlined boarding process.

Don’t worry, though. You won’t have to pay anything extra for toting a purse, backpack or laptop bag. What a deal!

Those of us who prefer to be treated like people, rather than cattle, can always purchase the more expensive Classic Plus fares, which are fully refundable and include one checked bag, one carry-on bag, pre-assigned seating and extra legroom. In the few sample fares we scoped out between a handful of randomly chosen destinations, we saw differences of nearly $200 roundtrip between some Economy and Classic Plus fares. Oof.

7 Mistakes to Avoid When Booking a Flight

Allegiant and Spirit Airlines pulled something similar not too long ago, and we’ve still got a bitter taste in our mouths. The only question remains: Which airline will be next?

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

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