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pickpocket-proof pantsThe pants worked. I wasn’t pickpocketed on a recent Eastern Mediterranean trip.

Whether it was the P^Cubed “Pick-Pocket Proof Pants,” a test sample of which was recently sent to our sister site Cruise Critic to review, is hard to say. Wandering the narrow, cobbled streets and open squares of one Mediterranean city, I noticed a man who could have been a thief — the greedy looking type with a gold tooth and moist eyes. I think he ogled the pants, with their button-secured flaps hiding deep zipper pockets, and secret zipper pockets within zipper pockets, and thought better. You can’t burgle a walking money belt.

Paranoid hallucinations aside, the odds that you will be pickpocketed on the road depend on many factors — most of which the savvy traveler will be able to mitigate, whether he’s wearing pants or not. (Many savvy travelers do don trousers of some sort.)

Money Safety Tips for Travelers

Still, confidence is a valuable asset when visiting a strange, new destination — as those who’ve suffered the sickening violation of being robbed abroad so suddenly learn. PPP Designer Adam Rapp said a near-miss with a team of cut purses at Xian, China’s notoriously congested Bell Tower were the inspiration behind the product.

I haven’t had the pleasure of finding a stranger’s hand in my pocket, so it helps, too, that the PPP’s are about more than just their marketing angle and the system of zipper-, button- and secret-pocket-based deterrents. The front pockets are big — small guidebook-size big — and the light, dense material is stain, water and wrinkle resistant. The “Business Traveler” model (there’s also a cargo-style version, the “Adventurer”) is stylish enough to wear to a restaurant. Add a black blazer and some dress shoes, and you won’t be seated next to the kitchen.

The stain, water and wrinkle claims basically held up — the pants resist all three. If you end up crumpled in a fetal position after a rainy Tomatina, expect the worst. But if you’re just a run-of-the-pants everyday slob, you’re in luck. Hot sauce intended for my mouth streamed off a slice of pizza and onto my lap, where the Teflon-coated fabric rendered the liquid into tiny orange beads. Some sauce sank in, but later, water, mild hand soap and a slightly abrasive towel took care of the remaining splotches.

For me, the one downside was printed on the price tag. If you’ve got a pants ceiling of $30, spending $100, the cost of the Business Traveler, might not be in the cards. But Adam makes the case for flashing your wallet. It comes down to the materials — special zippers, rugged thread that you can’t break “without hurting your hand” (I tried), the highest-grade Teflon and the overall utility of the pant. It also takes 120 minutes of labor to produce one pair, compared to the 20 minutes an average pantsmaker spends on a pair of chinos, said Adam. Am I convinced? Not exactly, but that may speak to why I’ve never been a target for pickpocketing in the first place.

10 Things to Do in the First 24 Hours of Your Trip

— written by Dan Askin

vacation rental beach sandalsHow many of you rely on user-generated reviews to help pick a hotel or vacation rental? Virtual show of hands. That’s what we thought. And if a vacation rental owner’s property listing had bathroom pics showing only the porcelain spaces not dripping black mold, you might be inclined to tell the world, ex post tripso.

Not so fast.

According to a recent piece by veteran consumer travel writer Chris Elliott, “non-disparagement” clauses are seeping into vacation rental contracts as owners and management companies attempt to vigorously defend their reputations in a user-generated landscape. One scathing review, real or fake, can gut a small business, they say. Consumers aren’t the only ones who need protection.

Blow off the fine print and you could face a heavy fine, which a couple did recently for posting a negative review of an Arizona vacation rental on VRBO.com. Their rental contract said they needed consent from the owner or the owner’s rep, Progressive Management Concepts, to do so. Their credit card was hit with a punitive $500 fine. (The couple eventually agreed to take down the review and got their $500 back, plus $200 more.)

Finding a Vacation Rental

TJ Mahony, CEO and co-founder of IndependentTraveler.com sister site FlipKey, a vacation rental site, told us he hadn’t heard of this practice yet — but said, “In principle, we would never encourage nor support this.

“The overwhelmingly majority of vacation rental experiences are positive. Moreover, FlipKey and TripAdvisor offer extensive reputation management tools to help homeowners effectively manage their online reputation and address unreasonable claims.”

Mahony said he would personally never sign a contract including such a clause.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

We agree. While there’s little doubt that fake, or at least disingenuous, reviews are a problem, forced confidentiality is not the solution. Online reviews are not some “vast buzzing, blooming confusion,” as travel icon Arthur Frommer recently told the Wall Street Journal. They’re one of many essential tools — which include, yes, guidebooks — used by the savvy traveler.

So, amid the fine print, there’s may be another question to ask when interviewing a vacation rental owner: Are you okay with consumer reviews?

— written by Dan Askin

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns FlipKey.

As if we needed any confirmation — there isn’t an ounce of complacency left in fliers.

On Tuesday, passengers on a JetBlue flight from JFK to Vegas used their weight and two kinds of belts — seat and pant — to subdue an unhinged pilot who had what’s being described as a mid-flight meltdown.

After Clayton Osbon was locked out of the cockpit by a co-pilot who told FAA investigators that the captain was exhibiting “erratic behavior,” Osbon fumed and seethed about Iraq, Iran and Al Qaeda, beseeched passengers to pray, and said the plane was in immediate danger of being shot down. He called for a landing.

Osbon got his wish. With four passengers restraining the still-ranting captain, his colleagues, including an off-duty JetBlue pilot who was onboard, made an emergency landing in Amarillo, Texas.

While the fliers-turned-security detail — reportedly comprising a retired police sergeant, a security exec and two others — held Osbon down, another passenger filmed the chaos in the cabin with a cell phone. The grainy visual won’t win any awards for in-flight cinematography, but the audio offers a glimpse into the chaotic scene at 35,000 feet. Following that video is a short clip of Osbon being removed from the plane.

The Christian Science Monitor reported today that Osbon, a 12-year pilot for JetBlue, has been charged with “interfering with crew-member instructions.” A CBS report published before the formal charges were issued now rings bizarre but true — it said that Osban could become the “first airline pilot accused of interfering with his own flight.”

Pending an investigation, JetBlue has suspended Osban from flying. CBS reports that FBI investigators are waiting to listen to the cockpit conversation preceding the incident captured on the plane’s “black box.”

Airplane Horror Stories

JetBlue CEO Dave Barger, who appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” Wednesday, called the incident a “medical situation that turned into a security one,” said Reuters. Osbon, whom Barger called a consummate professional that he’s known for years, is in federal custody at a medical facility in Amarillo.

This latest incident comes less than three weeks after an American Airlines flight attendant was subdued by passengers and de-planed after ranting about September 11 and saying the plane was going to crash. The AA jet was on the ground at the time.

Do incidents like these make you more nervous about flying?

— written by Dan Askin

airplane women laptopDutch airline KLM recently launched “Meet and Seat,” an opt-in program whereby would-be fliers can share their Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, which are integrated into an airplane seating chart. The social benefits are easy to grasp: Agree to meet for a pre-flight beer (or non-alcoholic beverage), share a taxi after the flight or even choose a like-languaged seatmate, who may in turn choose to sit elsewhere based on your profile pic, triggering a virtual game of cat and mouse.

The program is currently only offered to solo fliers booked on three flights — Amsterdam to New York, San Francisco and Sao Paulo — but KLM says there are expansion plans in the works.

We’re all for an airline offering a free means to enhance the experience of being wedged into seat for seven hours — and it got us musing: Which other travel scenarios could benefit from a little pre-trip social engagement?

1. At-sea meat and eat (note the pun). While more flexible alternatives are available, nearly all cruise ships still offer the popular set-time, set-seating model in their main dining rooms. Chatting with strangers over dinner can be an exciting prospect … until Ron drops a comment about “the liberal media,” and Steve, a journalist, turns his lobster tail into a weapon. Lines do try to match diners a bit by age, but it would be a novel concept to give the power to the passenger.

2. Bus buddy. Megabus and BoltBus, the U.S. coach companies touting $1 starting fares (alas, I haven’t landed one yet), could certainly adopt KLM’s model, minus the pre-assigned seating. Given the operators’ young audience of assumed Facebook users, we have every confidence that there’d be many takers. After all, it’s more enjoyable to mock the explosion of sound coming from a neighbor’s headphones when the laughter can be shared. The pre- and post-trip incentives — again, that beer and taxi share — are also built in.

Why You Should take the Bus on Your Next Trip

3. Tour with your new best friends. No doubt you want to take that full-day excursion from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and Masada. But as a travel writer who often flies solo or in tandem, I’ve been stuck too many times on the right tour with the wrong crowd. I’ll never forget an excursion in Cairo where fellow travelers had an hour-long conversation about which of their friends and acquaintances were obese. Others on the tour refused to de-bus a few hours in because they were sick of all these pyramids, “which look exactly the same.” Needless to say, the tour suffered from the lack of interest in the surrealistic profundity of a 5,000-year-old tomb rising 400 feet into the sky. Condescension aside, if we could only join a tour group based on common interests, every traveler would be a little happier.

Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

Now it’s your turn: Is there a travel scenario you’d like to see socialized … or a company that’s already doing it?

— written by Dan Askin

The job of a flight attendant can be monotonous. Rote tasks include spouting lobotomizing FAA-approved safety briefings, maneuvering a heavy wheeled cart down a too-narrow passageway and repeatedly telling passengers to turn off their surreptitiously running electronic devices.

But there are those who’ve managed to elevate the craft.

In that rarified air, flight attendants rap, sing and execute pre-flight safety talks rife with wry quips about seatbelts fitting “low and tight like tailored pants.” The checked bags might be extra, but the instantaneous mood enhancement is included in the fare.

Here are three of our favorite flight attendants. We’d thank them personally if we could.

1. Many travelers argue that Southwest Airlines flight attendants are given the most comedic leeway — so long as they touch on the federally required safety points. Case in rap: Behold the rhyming flight attendant, MC David Holmes, who transforms a banal briefing into something a bit more bumpin’.

2. This sartorially inclined Southwest flight attendant believes that life vests, seat belts and “buttercup yellow” oxygen masks are the epitome of high fashion — more so if worn snugly to accentuate your waist or face. He even dispatches his coworkers down the aisles to see that passengers’ seat belts are fastened and that their shoes match their outfits.

3. Fly enough and you may witness a flight attendant leading the cabin in song (again Southwest seems to pop up most). But no stewardess has ever entertained like Trans American Airlines’ Randy, who belts out an ovation-worthy rendition of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “River of Jordan.”

(Look familiar? The above clip is from the satirical film “Airplane!”)

For more in-flight shenanigans, check out Richard Simmons’ flight safety video and the controversial dancing flight attendants at Cebu Pacific.

— written by Dan Askin

christmas crackersThe trend-happy team at AAA expects some 5.4 million leisure travelers to fly this holiday season. We won’t speculate on how many will be schlepping their Christmas cacti, fruitcakes and eggnog through the security checkpoint, but we will offer a stern warning: season of merriment or not, the TSA has strict rules about what you can and cannot carry onto a plane.

Blogger Bob, lead blogger for the TSA, offered a few holiday do’s and dont’s on a recent post, and we filled in some of his key omissions, including snowman-shaped dry ice and Christmas-themed fauna.

Do bring your fruitcake. As a solid (sometimes too much of a solid), fruitcakes of all manner are permitted through the checkpoint. Fruitcakes doubling as weapons caches are not allowed.

Don’t bring Christmas crackers. These noise-making apparatuses (pictured above), often designed to look like candy or wooden soldiers, are prohibited on aircraft. The chemical that triggers the cap-gun pop and mental breakdown of a least favorite in-law when the crackers are torn is silver fulminate, which is highly explosive.

Do bring 3.4 ounces or less of eggnog. As a liquid, eggnog is allowed only within the limits set forth by the TSA’s always confounding 3-1-1 guidelines.

Don’t bring Yule logs. We’re actually a little confused about this one, but Blogger Bob says they should be placed in your checked baggage; perhaps this is because Yule logs are traditionally extremely large, so they probably won’t fit within the carry-on baggage size limits outlined by your airline.

Do bring your mini Christmas cactus. As long as you’re traveling between U.S. gateways, it’s fine to bring along a Christmas cactus or any other holiday-related plant. However, if you’re traveling internationally, you may have issues with customs, as many countries have restrictions on bringing agricultural products across international borders.

Maybe bring wrapped gifts. Blogger Bob confirms that wrapped gifts are allowed in carry-on luggage, but not encouraged. He explains: “If there’s something in the gift that needs to be inspected, we may have to open it. Our officers try their best not to mangle the gift wrap, but it’s not a guarantee and it also slows down the line for everybody else when we have to do this.”

Do bring a dry-ice snowman to keep your medications cool … if it’s not too heavy. The U.S. government has strict regulations regarding dry ice on airplanes. Passengers may bring 2 kilograms of the substance in carry-on luggage as long as it’s stored in a package that allows the venting of carbon dioxide gas. Still, a DOT spokesperson suggested to us at one point that travelers avoid packing dry ice in carry-on luggage. Individual TSA agents unfamiliar with DOT regulations may confiscate the substance and foil your plans to add a festive touch to your medical needs.

For more on what you can and can’t bring through airport checkpoints, peruse Airport Security Q&A.

— written by Dan Askin

plaine foodThis is not just another blog post about how bad airplane food can be. This time, I have a solution.

On a recent Iberia Airlines transatlantic red-eye, I was seated toward the tail. By the time the food cart arrived, they had run out of hot meals. Ten minutes later, something materialized: a seething tray of brown matter masquerading as shepherd’s pie. The potent cocktail of appearance, smell, taste and consistency conjured the primordial soup from whence we all, including the meal, originated. My neighbor wasn’t so lucky. Crew managed to locate something akin to a protein-packed M.R.E. in a Fancy Feast tin, complete with flip top. (It was technically chicken.) He opened it greedily, ignoring my joke about botulism. A woman behind us who suffered the same culinary fate sliced herself — twice — when trying to open her preheated cat food.

5 Foods to Avoid Before Flying

Recently, a colleague offered a simple but brilliant solution: ban hot food on planes. For her, the reheated stench that fills the cabin triggers a flight response. Even for long-hauls or red-eyes, I like the Southwest model: offer flyers a potpourri of individual snacks — Cheez-Its, Oreo crisps, pita chips. (Recycle the packaging.) And if a meal must be served, stick with the cold stuff like sandwiches, salads and packaged desserts. There are some fine products out there. Sahale nut mixes come to mind — and I don’t even mind paying for the privilege, as nearly all U.S. carriers make you shell out for food on domestic flights anyway.

I understand some long-haul economy fliers covet the hot meal — a few terrifically tacky Continental ads bragged about their commitment to it several years back (check it out below) — and experienced fliers know which airlines take dining more seriously than others. But the weak ratio of good to noxious is still an indisputable fact. Period. End of story, as Herman Cain’s beleaguered top advisor and I are prone to saying.

Back to Iberia. The “light dinner” on my return flight — a cold ham-and-cheese bocadillo — fit our prescription perfectly. There was no festering mass, no smell, and it kept hunger at bay until we landed at JFK.

Let’s talk airplane food: Sound off about our proposition or share your best and worst cabin meals in the comments.

— written by Dan Askin

napsacUnless you’re 18 inches tall, sleeping on a plane can require Zen, calculated fatigue, a prescription, and three or four Finlandia and tonics.

Enter the Napsac ($47.50): one part backpack, one part sleeping apparatus for the spatially oppressed.

Inventor Joe Maginness sent over a sample of his travel innovation, which is basically a well-constructed backpack topped with a U-shaped memory foam pillow. Inside, there’s a support beam that keeps the walls of the bag rigid and upright. Tired? Wear the backpack in reverse, tighten the straps, rest your chin in the bag’s soft concavity and ponder a placid mountain lake on a windless morning.

Sleeping on Planes

If a horse can sleep standing up, surely I can sleep stuffed in coach with the Napsac on a Continental red-eye to France. The bag was screaming — nay, neighing — for a field test.

Try as I might to get comfortable, though, sleep did not come. I felt too much downward chin pressure when using the bag. After about 90 seconds, a hungry grizzly started trotting through the lake toward me, and I needed to readjust, firing a metaphorical gunshot in the air, to ease my jaw tension. Ninety seconds later, he was back. I have a theory that the chin issue was caused by my torso being longer than the sac, thus creating too much space between pillow and beard. Either way, the in-flight squirming continued.

Perhaps my lack of comfort was my own fault. When using the Napsac, proper posture — a problem for anyone bound to a desk for a third of his life — is key. A straight back allows the sac to be sufficiently tight against one’s body and held in position.

While I couldn’t quite hit the sack with the backpack, I did use it frequently during idle moments on the road. I was the slightly hunched traveler, chin resting on pillow, on the fountain steps in front of Notre Dame, on a park bench, in an art museum studying Impressionists. When I was just looking for a quick break, I called on the sac. And despite my in-flight insomnia, I found myself commending the product for its above-standard bag qualities. The Napsac fit a laptop in a padded pocket, and a guidebook and a sandwich in the main compartment. A cell phone, an MP3 player, a packet of cookies and car keys occupied the many zippered pockets. Frankly, it was just a nice carry-on bag, pillow or not.

Now it’s your turn to try the Napsac. My field tested (gently used) version is up for grabs. Simply post your tip for sleeping on an airplane in the comments, and we’ll choose one responder at random to receive the bag.

— written by Dan Askin

moneyTypically, we aim to showcase travel deals that save you money — like this half-price cruise to the Western Mediterranean. But a few deals for hostel dorm beds during the 2012 London Olympics (July 27 to August 12) were so frightening that we had to share.

Sites like Expedia and Hotels.com have policies dictating that you can’t book rooms more than 11 months out, which means they’re only now allowing reservations coinciding with the Olympics.

Here’s what we found: A 28-bed all-male dorm room at Palmers Lodge Hostel (just south of Hampstead Heath) is on sale for $157.50 per person, per night on Hotels.com — that’s about $4,400 per night for the whole room. (The rate includes 28 breakfasts.) That said, whichever bed you book in the hotel, be it in an ensuite double or an eight-person female-only room, the per-person price remains the same. (Hint: Palmers’ direct booking prices are significantly cheaper than those posted by Hotels.com.)

Want to stay at Hostel 639, a spot near Notting Hill, during similar dates? On Hotels.com, the per-person price for a night at Hostel 639 is equal to rates for a dorm at Palmers — but Hostel’s rates are two times what Palmers offers for a basic double with shared bathroom. That’s more than $500 per night for two travelers. Reserve a quad room today and you’ll pay $1,000 per night. Booking sites, including Hotels.com and Venere.com, have rates starting at less than $20 (includes taxes) for stays at the same properties this September.

These price hikes should come as no surprise, since news outlets have been reporting on soaring rates during the Olympics in London for some time. But perhaps we can be optimistic that the hoteliers are being, well, optimistic. Tom Jenkins, chief executive of the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA), told the Telegraph, “In Athens [host city of the 2004 Olympics], around 15,000 hotel rooms were sold. London has 125,000 rooms to sell. Such optimistic pricing in the face of such disparity is extremely brave.”

David Tarsh, another spokesman for the ETOA, has been widely quoted as saying visitors to London during the Olympics should wait until early next year before booking accommodations; Tarsh has predicted that hotels with unsold rooms will be forced to reduce their prices by that time.

Have you ever stumbled upon a hotel deal that was too bad to be true? Share it in the comments.

— written by Dan Askin

hurricaneSummer travelers set to visit the Bahamas or just about anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard from North Carolina to New England have been glued to the Weather Channel. Thank Hurricane Irene for that. The major storm has been pummeling the Caribbean with 120-mile-per-hour winds, upending travel plans for those heading to the Bahamas by ship or plane. If the forecast from the National Hurricane Center holds up, most of the 13 original colonies are in for some serious bluster.

When a storm blows in, especially a beast like Irene, what should a savvy traveler do? Keep your eye on airline change fees, cruise ship itinerary scrambling and, if you have one, your travel insurance policy.

Travel Insurance and Storms
If you don’t have a travel insurance policy by now, nothing you purchase at this point will save your trip from Irene. For the next time around, know this: Not all travel insurance policies are created equal, but a good one will cover travelers for trip delay, interruption and cancellation in the event of a major storm — minus any compensation you get from a cruise line or airline.

For a general insurance overview, check out our Guide to Travel Insurance.

Magnanimous Airlines?
Let’s not get carried away, but with Irene looming, a number of U.S. carriers have temporarily adjusted their flight change fee policies. “Typically, the airlines allow you to change your travel dates without the usual fees, with no change in fare, and usually without limitations on your original fare bucket [during a major hurricane],” says Ed Perkins, writer for our sister site Smarter Travel. For example, United passengers originally booked to fly to select destinations from August 21 – 26 must complete their revised travel within seven days, and may have to check on seat availability in their original fare bucket (economy, business, etc.). Continental is being a little more generous. Passengers scheduled to fly to certain destinations from August 21 – 26 must complete their revised travel by the end of ticket validity (up to one year). These temporary policies do vary somewhat significantly, so check your carrier’s Web site for more information.

Many East Coast airports will close this weekend in preparation for the storm, and more than 1,000 flights have been canceled; check with your airline.

Cruises: Diverted but Never Canceled
Mobility is the cruise lines’ secret weapon against hurricanes. Nassau, to which Irene seems drawn, cannot relocate. Cruise ships can, even if it means a Bermuda sailing becomes a voyage to New England, which happened in 2005. More than a dozen Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean ships have scrambled their originally scheduled itineraries. Bahamas-bound ships have temporarily redeployed to the Western Caribbean, trading Nassau for Cozumel and the like. Worst case scenario: If a punishing hurricane makes a debarkation port inaccessible, the line may have to lengthen the cruise by a day, which of course impacts the 3,000 passengers waiting to board for the next sailing. This, however, is rare.

For regular updates on Irene’s impact on cruising, visit our sister site Cruise Critic’s Hurricane Zone, which is updated regularly.

— written by Dan Askin