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cell phone plane flightSay it ain’t so, Virgin Atlantic.

Comes word this morning that Virgin Atlantic has become the first British airline to allow in-flight cell phone calls. The AeroMobile service — which debuted Tuesday on Virgin’s New York to London service — is available on the airline’s A330-300’s to fliers who get their phone service through O2, Vodaphone and T-Mobile.

According to ABC News, the airline said this likely annoyance is “intended for use in exceptional situations, when passengers need to send a [text], make a quick call or access an e-mail on a Blackberry.” Due to bandwidth issues, only six passengers can use their phones at one time, though it’s unclear who or what will regulate who the lucky six are.

Top Five Airlines for In-Flight Entertainment

The airline isn’t charging extra for the service, though the Associated Press notes that callers will be subjected to the usual jaw-dropping roaming rates. Virgin joins a tiny minority of carriers that allow cell phone usage, including Dubai-based Emirates (the first carrier to break the barrier in 2008), Oman Air and Royal Jordanian. (The service is not yet available on any U.S. airlines, as the Federal Aviation Administration does not allow cell phones to be used in flight unless they’re in “airplane mode,” which allows fliers to play games but not make calls or send texts.)

I know what you’re thinking, so let’s let George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog.com, say what’s on your mind. As he told ABC: “The airline cabin is the last refuge for those who wish to be out of earshot of someone yelling into a mobile phone, so I imagine that many passengers are not going to welcome this. I can just imagine sitting next to someone gabbing about nothing at the top of his or her lungs for hours on end. I predict a number of mobile phones will be snatched out of hands and stomped on. Just what we need, with all the other in-flight hostilities that passengers deal with.”

Amen, George. Using phones on takeoff and landing will remain off-limits (and we’ve all seen those who’ve flouted those rules — we’re talking about you, Alec Baldwin), but once you turn on those electronic devices … watch out. I’ve got a bad feeling that this won’t be the last airline to allow in-flight calls, so it’s not hard to imagine a blabby future where passengers from every angle are catching up with family and friends at 32,000 feet.

What do you think? Is allowing in-flight cell phone usage a godsend or an unimaginable evil?

— written by John Deiner

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

paris fashion sunglasses eiffel towerWhat exactly are “rude” countries and “rude” cities?

I’ll tell you what they are: Places that travel Web sites and publications routinely turn to in order to get people talking (and, uh, clearly it works).

A few weeks ago, Skyscanner — a Web site that compares rates on different airlines — announced that its users had deemed France the world’s rudest country, with Russia taking the second spot. (The United States was No. 6.) By default, that apparently makes Paris the world’s rudest city. And in January, Travel + Leisure magazine announced its readers’ picks for America’s rudest cities, with New York taking the top “prize.” Slots two through through five went to Miami, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and Boston.

I’ve been to all of these cities, and I’ll be darned if I can tell which one is ruder than the other. I’ve seen heroic acts of kindness in the Big Apple, and while you can’t take the French out of the French, I’ve never felt particularly ill at ease while tromping near the Arc de Triomphe. Washington D.C.? Having lived there for nearly two decades, I always considered the place ridiculously pleasant.

Rudeness is most definitely in the eyes of the beholder, and no doubt travelers have a different take on things than those who live in these bastions of ill manners. I had a former boss who insisted that the only way to avoid rudeness in places like Paris, New York and London (Skyscanner deems the British the third-rudest nationality) was to blend in with the locals, and I always thought was a terrible idea. Why? Because the natives can sniff out posers immediately, and they’ll turn on you.

12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place

Instead, I’ve found that being polite myself begets politeness in others. Dressing appropriately (sorry, no flip-flops in Notre Dame) and adhering to local customs goes a long way toward endearing you to the locals. Learning a bit of the native language puts others at ease and shows that you’re at least trying. And by all means, if you bumble into New York thinking that everyone is going to be rude to you … you’ll probably leave thinking they were.

— written by John Deiner

z hotel london sohoThere were no drawers for my clothes and only two hangers on the quartet of pegs that substituted for a closet, the bed was pushed against the windows (allowing for maximum exposure to the drunken “singing” at 3 a.m. below), and the shower flooded the sink area of the bathroom every morning — but one simple impression remained from my five-night January stay at London‘s Z Hotel.

I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The hotel, which opened in the Soho neighborhood in fall 2011, is decidedly not for everyone. I stayed because it was “only” $220 a night including taxes, which sadly enough is considered dirt-cheap in a city known for its exorbitant costs. But ultimately it was money well spent. The neighborhood, a mass of bars, clubs, restaurants and overlap from the adjacent theater-rich West End, is a London hot spot, with easy reach to the rest of the city.

Those rooms, however, are an acquired taste. They’re tiny by just about any measure; my Z Queen was advertised at being okay for two, but five nights in 150 square feet of space might have ended in divorce if I’d brought my wife. Z Singles, some of which are window-free (think of it as a cruise ship inside cabin without the free buffet), are a mere 85 square feet. The hotel comprises 12 Georgian townhouses interconnected by cooler-than-you lounge areas and glass-railed bridges, so there’s plenty of opportunity to get some fresh air, but still …

See Our Favorite London Hotels

hotel z soho london queenAll in all, my tiny space was incredibly functional, even if I had to pile my clothes on the shelf behind the bed and use my laptop on my, well, laptop (there was no desk). It took me an embarrassing amount of time to discover that I had to point the clicker for the suspended 40-inch TV (awesome!) at the headboard — and not the TV itself. But the free Wi-Fi was ridiculously fast, and I dug the upscale linens, plush duvet and Thierry Mugler toiletries. The ultra-modern shower, sink and toilet occupied the same giant glass-enclosed cube, but once I figured out that I could build a dam out of a towel, I put a damper on the mess that ensued every time I washed.

With the London Olympics approaching, I wondered what the hotel is charging for the expected mad rush. I couldn’t find many nights available for the Z Queens, but those singles are still up for grabs. For Thursday, August 2, to Tuesday, August 7 — five nights during the heart of the Games — singles are running about $360 a night. Not exactly a gold-medal-winning tariff, but, man, you can’t beat that location.

5 Things You Shouldn’t Do at a Hotel

Would you stay at the Hotel Z?

— written by John Deiner

airport departure gates signThere’s good news in the air for U.S. travelers: The TSA’s PreCheck program — which allows fliers who’ve been vetted by the agency to scoot through security lines faster — has been such a success during a trial phase that the agency has decided to expand it to 28 more airports nationwide.

Among the airports slated to get PreCheck by the end of the year are those in the Washington D.C. area (Reagan National, Dulles and BWI), the New York City area (Newark, LaGuardia, JFK), Orlando, Philadelphia and Chicago O’Hare.

According to the TSA blog, “Eligible participants include certain frequent [fliers] from participating airlines as well as members of Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Trusted Traveler programs (Global Entry, SENTRI, and NEXUS) who are U.S. citizens and fly on a participating airline.” That means not everyone can get in on the fun; up to this point, participating airlines consisted of Delta and American only, but WLKY reports that Alaska, United and US Airways may be added later this year.

Here’s how it works: After a traveler is pre-screened, info is embedded in the barcode on his or her boarding pass. Passengers can then use one of the special PreCheck lanes, where they may not be required to take off their shoes, belt or coat and remove their laptops from carrying bags. Visit the TSA’s blog for more information and how to enroll.

For our part, we’re always in favor of ways to get through security faster (presuming no safety is compromised), and you can check out these tips to do it: 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster.

— written by John Deiner

sick woman thermometerI’ll admit this up front: Traveling sick is ill-advised.

But when does sick become too sick to travel? I imagine that most of us have been confronted by this question at one point or another, and if you’re like me, you’ve made the wrong decision: Get on the flight, hop on the train, jump on the ship.

Last week, I ended a four-night cruise awash in worries. Kyle, my teenage nephew, had battled an ugly stomach virus a few days earlier and was back on his feet — and eating like a pig again. But 12 hours before we were slated to get off the ship, I came down with the Plague. My throat became so sore I could barely breathe, my ears were clogged and I was coughing up stuff that appeared to have flaked off the Blob. Fearful that my nephew’s stomach flu was about to rear its ugly head and unable to sleep because of the congestion, I sat up in my bed worrying that there’d be no escape from Port Canaveral, Florida, after daybreak.

Day broke, and I was still feeling lousy. But there was a cause for celebration: It appeared I’d dodged the stomach virus and all its attendant horrors. The two of us finished packing our bags (in silence because I’d lost my voice, though Kyle didn’t seem to mind), then lumbered off the ship and into the central Florida sunshine. I felt woozy as the shuttle bus departed the port, then fell asleep for the 40-minute drive to Orlando’s airport.

Exhausted, lightheaded and achy, I checked in for my flight and soon found another reason to celebrate: I could get on an earlier flight to Philly instead of waiting around the airport for five hours. By this time, Kyle was pretending he didn’t know me; I think he would have FedEx’d me home if he could have. The two of us bumped elbows in farewell (he didn’t want to catch my germs), and he headed toward his flight to Boston.

Traveling While Sick: Should You Do It?

Filled with guilt and anxiety over whether I’d make it home in one piece, I entered the aircraft and took my seat. Was it really fair to share my cold (or whatever it was) with everyone else on the plane? How would I feel if someone coughing up God-knows-what sat next to me? Shouldn’t I be lying in bed somewhere with a priest by my side?

Then the cacophony started. Behind me, next to me, even up in business class, passengers were coughing and nose-blowing, almost in harmony. A woman rushed to the bathroom seconds after the pilot told us it was safe to get up and didn’t return for a long, long time.

I slept a bit, but the nonstop hacking was hard to ignore. I got off the plane two hours later feeling sicker than when I got on, and I wondered: Did anyone feel the least remorse about sharing their illness with me?

— written by John Deiner

assistance aheadWith many parts of the Northeast still reeling from last weekend’s freak snowstorm, we’re all thinking: Is this a harbinger of things to come? Are we in for another three or four months of delayed flights, bitter-cold commutes and slush up to our ankles?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s winter outlook is all over the place (could be bad, could be ok), but I know this much for sure: As long as there are travel angels out there, we’ll survive.

Oh, you know what a travel angel is — it’s that person who sweeps out of nowhere to help you when you’re on the road. It’s the old lady who helps keep your restless child occupied on a crowded plane, the shopkeeper who gives you directions to the cathedral when you’re looking particularly lost, the cab driver who cuts you a break when you’ve discovered you don’t have enough local currency to pay the fare.

How to Solve 4 Common Travel Disasters

I had my own experience with a travel angel a few days ago when my wife and I drove through the Great Halloween Nor’easter en route to a wedding in Northwest New Jersey. We left just as the storm intensified and, quite frankly, it caught us off guard. We’d anticipated wet roads and a minimum of inconvenience, but before long we were dodging falling branches and sliding cars. (I know what you’re thinking: We should have turned back. But our desire to get to the black-tie wedding got the better of us, so we continued on.)

Hours passed as the expected 90-minute drive became a six-hour odyssey. Finally, as we neared the ski resort where the wedding was taking place, the snow began falling even harder and the skies grew darker. That’s when we came to a dead halt on the hill leading to the main entrance, stuck behind four other cars mired in the snow and ice.

After 45 minutes of sliding around, we were about to ditch the car and walk the final half mile to the resort, even though we weren’t quite sure where it was. That’s when … he appeared.

A man dressed in a bright orange shirt banged on my window and pointed down the road at a barely visible snow plow — he was the driver and wanted to help get everyone on their way. He asked if I had a snow shovel on me (why, yes I did!), then spent the next half hour shoveling under everyone’s wheels and pushing them off the road to make way for his plow. When he cleared the hill, he returned and made sure we could get onto the freshly plowed asphalt.

We called him the Great Pumpkin (hey, he was wearing an orange shirt!), but he was really a travel angel — and the very best kind at that. He came out of nowhere, vanished as quickly as he appeared (we didn’t even have time to tip him), and turned what could have been a disaster of a trip into something special. We will never forget him.

Have you encountered a travel angel? Share your story in the comments.

— written by John Deiner

steering wheel speeding car blurWhen it comes to driving, are you a slow-lane sort of person, or do you immediately head to the left and make everyone else eat your dust?

Now comes word that Maine is about to become the only state east of the Mississippi River to legalize a 75-mile-an-hour speed limit. Starting Tuesday, October 4, locals and travelers heading to Canada can take advantage of the power boost on a lonely stretch of Interstate 95 in the far northern reaches of the state, from Old Town to Houlton.

According to a Reuters report, the 110-mile stretch of asphalt “could handle the increase from an engineering standpoint, and … studies showed most people were already driving comfortably at 74 to 75 miles per hour there.”

The 8 Best U.S. Road Trips

While Maine may be the first Eastern state to okay a 75 m.p.h. speed limit, it’s not a ground-breaker. A number of Western states also top out at 75 m.p.h., while Texas allows 85 m.p.h. on some segments.

The legislation, which flew through the Maine legislature, was introduced by Representative Alexander Willette, who said that his constituents had been nagging him about making the change. “Their main reasoning is, everyone is traveling 75 anyway and they are already not getting pulled over,” he told Reuters. “Why not make it official?”

I’ll tell you why not: If you can tell people they can go 75, then they’ll go 85. I’ve driven through that area a number of times, and I agree it’s a long, straight, boring haul. But if people weren’t routinely getting pulled over, why give them the (indirect) license to go faster? Does anyone really think that 85 or 90 m.p.h. won’t now be the norm?

Enter the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Anne Fleming, who holds the same view. As she told the Associated Press: “People do pay attention to speed limits. Whatever they’re flying along at, whenever they raise the speed limit, they fly along faster.” Furthermore, she said higher speeds often lead to more (and worse) accidents.

So what do you think? Vote in our poll or speak up in the comments.

— written by John Deiner

beachIf you haven’t noticed, the rush to the beach is on. The final two weeks of July and first two weeks of August are traditionally the busiest for the nation’s beaches, which means that your little piece of sun comes at a premium. For 15 years, I went to North Carolina’s Outer Banks and always made a point not to go during these doggiest days of summer.

Still, there’s no denying the siren call of the surf when the temperature soars and the cheesy paperback beckons. It’s been a brutal summer for millions, so any solace near a body of water has come as a great relief. Dr. Beach, the self-proclaimed “America’s Foremost Beach Expert,” (hey, I want that job!) named his Top 10 U.S. beaches for 2011 a while back, and I was happy to see that I’ve been to two of them: Cape Hatteras, N.C. and Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne.

But here’s the rub: Beach days are a rare commodity for most, so it’s always a drag and a half when someone else puts a damper on your chill time. I was at Delaware Beach State Park a few weeks ago for a lone day (sigh), but it was nearly perfect: sunny and temperate, packed but peaceful, water cool but refreshing. Though it seemed as if there were more people underfoot than grains of sand, the place was eerily quiet mid-afternoon while everything from tots to seagulls were napping.

Slideshow: The World’s Best Beaches

It could have gone the other way, of course. Here then are my five tips for beach etiquette, though it all comes down to just having a little respect for your fellow sunburn victim:

– Don’t smoke upwind of me. Yes, you’re outside, but I’d rather smell the salt air than something akin to a bingo hall. (Yeah, I’ll go there: Bravo for outdoor smoking bans.)

– Don’t play Frisbee (or football, or volleyball or fill-in-the-blank-ball) over my head or inches from my chair. You may be having a good time, but I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for something to whap me on the noggin.

– Drag your blanket to that empty stretch of beach where no one is near the dunes and shake it out. Nothing’s worse than unwanted Lasik. And, while we’re at it, I’d prefer you walk around my towel and not over it and on top of my lunch.

– Keep your music to yourself. I beg of you.

– This one’s for you boogie boarders: Watch out for the little ones (and the big ones, for that matter) when you’re, uh, boogie-boarding. You’re not the only ones in the water.

Not so hard, right? But don’t worry about your kids laughing and screaming as they run in and out of the waves — at the beach, that particular sound is music to the ears. What bad beach behavior irks you?

— written by John Deiner

roller coasterAs if amusement park rides weren’t scary enough, now comes word of two incidents — one fatal — over the past week involving thrill-seekers in New Jersey and Ohio.

First, the good news: According to a report in the Asbury Park Press, your “odds of being seriously injured at one of the United States’ 400 fixed-site amusement parks are 1-in-9 million.” It goes on to quote a rep from the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions as saying 280 million people visit U.S. parks annually, taking 1.7 billion rides.

The Asbury Park story was printed in reaction to the death of an 11-year-old girl on June 4 at Morey’s Pier in Wildwood, N.J. The girl, who was visiting the park on a class trip, fell almost 100 feet from a Ferris wheel. No fault has been determined, though officials say the 156-foot Giant Wheel recently passed state inspections and no mechanical problems were found. The next day, seven riders on the WildCat ride at Ohio’s Cedar Point amusement park were injured when a car failed to brake at the end of the ride, causing it to slam into another loaded car. The injuries were minor.

The back-to-back incidents are coincidental, of course. There’s no telling right now how the girl fell from the Ferris wheel gondola (Did she stand up? Did the door unlatch unexpectedly?), but it’s frightening nonetheless. I’m an amusement park junkie, and every time I’m strapped into a ride I wonder if I’m going to make it off alive. That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

I draw the line at rides at carnivals and fairs — something that arrived on a truck the day before and was assembled in the predawn hours just screams “Avoid!” to me. And I’m never quite sure if I can trust that creepy dude at the controls.

That said, good Jersey boy that I am, I’ve been to Morey’s Pier dozens of times, and I’ve never thought twice about jumping on the attractions (that Ferris wheel has always been too tall for me, however). I also frequent the boardwalk rides up the coast in Seaside Heights. You may know it as home to the “Jersey Shore” crew. I know it as home to the scariest ride I’ve ever been on.

It’s a roller coaster tucked into the nether regions of Seaside’s Casino Pier. It’s not tall or particularly fast, but it always looks rusty to me. The cars are cramped and don’t seem particularly well affixed to the track. The coaster’s metal frame shakes when you’re going up the first hill, and the chain pulling the cars makes an ungodly drone. Each turn at the top makes you feel as if you’re going to be dumped into the ocean, which is perhaps 70 feet or so below. The ride ends with a screech and, I swear, the smell of burning rubber.

I have to go on it once a year, or my summer isn’t complete.

— written by John Deiner

At the Airport By most accounts, the skies are expected to be a lot more crowded this summer. While domestic travel has yet to reach pre-recession levels, a recent story in the Los Angeles Times indicates that U.S. airlines will be carrying a record number of passengers overseas in the coming months. For this reason, I offer a cautionary tale.

This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done on a trip overseas:

After firming up plans to fly to Venice last month on a business trip, I discovered that my wife Janet could accompany me at the last minute. (Woo hoo! No lonely dinners during which I pretend to read in dim light!) Problem was, if she was to accompany me on my Lufthansa flights, the fare would be a whopping $3,000 round trip. We’d save $2,000 if she flew US Airways to Frankfurt, where we’d meet and fly together to Venice.

So far, so good. I departed Philadelphia and stopped for a four-hour layover in Germany, where I chilled and I waited for her to meet me. With 15 minutes to go before the flight to Venice, she was nowhere to be found. The Lufthansa gate agent told me that her Philly flight had been delayed and that the passengers bound for Venice had already been rebooked on a later flight. “You can meet her at your hotel,” the agent informed me.

Here comes the stupid part: I had Janet’s itinerary in my carry-on. I’d forgotten to give it to her in the rush at the airport, and she had no idea where we were staying in Venice. I arrived in Venice in full panic mode, wondering whether I should wait six hours for her to show up or head to the hotel and try to reach out via e-mail (her phone didn’t work overseas). Jet lag won out: I headed to the hotel, a $50 cab ride away.

Turns out Janet was panicking a couple of time zones away and had borrowed a phone. I never thought to turn mine on. I sent her a half-dozen e-mails (when, really, one would have done the trick), but she never thought to log on to the Internet at the Frankfurt airport. Frazzled and exhausted, I grabbed a cab three hours before her expected arrival and headed back to the airport. I’d rather be waiting for her than the other way around.

But hold on … having hopped on an earlier flight, Janet was hunched over the luggage carousel when I arrived. She looked frazzled and exhausted as well. We grabbed each other’s hands and jumped into the same cab I’d caught at the hotel.

The lessons here: Don’t be careless when you’re traveling overseas on different flights. Share all the relevant information about accommodations and transfers before you part ways with your travel companion. Have two phones that can dial internationally, or set up a plan of action in case you get separated (i.e., check the Internet). Don’t rely on a gate agent who has only a passing interest in whatever predicament you’re in. And learn from someone else’s stupid mistake.

— written by John Deiner