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airplane seatWould being able to eliminate jet lag make your next long-haul flight more bearable? What about knowing your food tray wouldn’t be jammed into your sternum if the person sitting in front of you decided to recline?

Solutions to both of these air travel problems have recently been proposed, and we at IndependentTraveler.com couldn’t be more excited.

Jet lag is an especially tiresome problem (pun intended) for travelers. But now you can just lather up those photons and erase your jet lag woes, Delta Air Lines promises. And though the “Photon Shower” conjures up futuristic images of a world with hovercrafts and Mars vacations, the device is real — almost.

Designed by a New York firm for Delta, the “Photon Shower” is a vertical shower-stall-style chamber that provides light therapy to users. According to an AdAge blog post, here’s how it works: users input their travel information, then step in and bask in a light sequence that recreates the effects of sunlight, which scientists say combats jet lag and provides a pick-me-up to tired travelers.

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Though it was displayed at the latest TED conference in California, the Shower has not yet been rolled out to airports — and Delta is offering no timeline on when it might be available.

A second technology development, equally as exciting, is sadly even farther away from reality. The result of a global student design competition sponsored by the James Dyson Foundation, the AirGo economy seat is something we’d really like to see installed on airplanes. (ABC News agrees.)

The seat, designed by Malaysian engineering student Alireza Yaghoubi, aims to give fliers access to all their limited seat space, even when the person in front of them reclines. To accomplish this, the tray table and TV screen are housed above the seats, so that when a seat is pushed back it does not force the tray table or TV back as well. In Yaghoubi’s design, the two are attached to an individual bulkhead, which also provides guaranteed baggage storage space for each individual seat (another problem many fliers face!).

Fighting Jet Lag: Tips from Our Readers

Yaghoubi told ABC News he got the idea for the seats after several uncomfortable eight-hour flights. On a typical flight, he said, the person in front of him reclined his or her seat, occupying one-third of the space he had paid for.

There’s just one problem with the design. It takes up 16 percent more floor space than the seats most airlines have now. But perhaps fliers would be willing to pay a little extra for the security of knowing they’d actually get to use all the space they paid for.

Given a choice, which of the two technological advancements would you like to see become reality first? Let us know below.

— written by Dori Saltzman

cockpit airplane pilotsWould you board a plane with no pilot? Sounds like a crazy idea — but according to an article from the Economist, it’s something that could become the future of air travel.

At some point within the next few weeks, a pilotless flight is slated to be tested during a trip from England to Scotland, meaning that the pilot operating the plane will be doing so from the ground in a control room. (There will also be a pilot in the cockpit, just in case anything goes wrong.)

The article notes that the U.S. Congress has shown interest in the technology, asking aviation regulators to find a way to incorporate unmanned aircraft into America’s air traffic control system as soon as the year 2015. The technology would likely be used on smaller aircraft carrying out functions such as border patrols or police surveillance.

For commercial aircraft carrying large numbers of passengers, it’s unlikely that onboard pilots would be eliminated altogether; instead, opines the Economist, flights might have just one pilot instead of a crew of two or three. (Our two cents: If any airline might try cutting pilots, it would be ultra-discounter Ryanair, whose CEO questions the importance of seatbelts in the air.)

How Flying Coach Could Save Your Life

Most of today’s planes are technologically advanced enough to take off, fly and land at a specified destination automatically — much like drone aircraft currently used by the military.

Overall, there still seem to be a lot of unanswered questions: How safe is an unmanned plane? Could this lead to job losses among pilots? Will pilots be able to concentrate better while controlling aircraft from the ground, or will it make them less accountable for safe flying if their lives aren’t at stake like those of the passengers onboard? And how might it affect consumer airfare prices?

10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight

Would you feel safe flying on a pilotless plane? Be sure to leave your comments below.

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

seatbelt airplaneFlying in the face of safety regulations around the world, one airline executive is speaking out against seatbelts on planes. “If there ever was a crash on an aircraft, God forbid, a seatbelt won’t save you,” claimed Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, as reported in Britain’s Daily Telegraph.

Actually, Mr. O’Leary, we beg to differ. In a recent test crash, scientists found that passengers without seatbelts would have died, while those wearing seatbelts and using the brace position on impact would have survived. (See How Flying Coach Could Save Your Life for more details.)

Even in non-crash situations, seatbelts can keep you safe. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), 58 people are injured each year by turbulence when not wearing their seatbelts.

Naturally, O’Leary’s diatribe was brought about because those pesky seatbelt regulations are keeping him from making money. According to the Telegraph, he wants to add “standing room only” cabins in the back of Ryanair planes, allowing budget-minded travelers to stand throughout their flights (while holding onto a handle for greater stability) at a price of 1 GBP, about $1.58 US. This is not permitted under current aviation safety laws, which require air travelers to wear seatbelts during takeoff and landing. “We’re always looking for new ways of doing things; it’s the authorities who won’t allow us to do them,” complained O’Leary. “They are all a bunch of plonkers.”

Would you buy a ticket in a standing-room-only section of a plane if the price were cheap enough?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

istanbul mosque birdsLast week I returned from a trip to Europe that involved visits to a couple of places in Italy as well as a stop in Turkey. “I’m worried about you going to Turkey,” my mom nervously told me over the phone before my plane took off. Because it’s near the Middle East, she had lumped it in with some of the less stable locations in that region and was concerned it was unsafe — even before the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya.

Sadly, I’ve spoken with several others — granted, not frequent travelers — who expressed the same sense of alarm when I mentioned where I was going, and I’ve received more than one reader e-mail asking whether it’s wise to embark on cruise ship shore excursions in certain locations, such as Greece and South Africa, that I wouldn’t necessarily consider to be at risk.

Travel Warnings and Advisories

As a Turkey newbie, I had no preconceived ideas, but I was pleasantly surprised by how modern it is and how friendly and welcoming its residents proved to be. I felt no less safe than when I’ve traveled to other European countries — Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, etc. Even our tour guide told us the country gets a bad rap, despite the absence of U.S. State Department travel warnings there.

While I take basic precautions and trust my instincts when I travel, I try to avoid allowing fear to keep me from visiting the places on my bucket list.

Have you visited someplace about which others were wrongly concerned? Have you traveled to a supposedly questionable area and found the danger to be blown out of proportion? Leave your comments below.

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

plane crashThose of us stuck in coach on every flight now have a silver lining to console us as we wedge ourselves into those cramped seats: we may be more likely than first-class passengers to survive a plane crash.

This was the primary takeaway from a recent safety study in which scientists crashed a Boeing 727 into a desert in Mexico, reports the U.K.’s Daily Mail. “During the $1.5 million experiment — which was arranged by Channel 4 and television production company Dragonfly — the first 11 rows of seats ripped out as the nose of the plane dipped and the front of the fuselage sheared off,” says the Daily Mail.

Because the front rows are where first-class passengers are normally seated, the scientists noted that no one in the more expensive cabin would have survived the crash. However, 78 percent of the remaining passengers would have survived — and the farther back in the plane they were, the better their chances.

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The study also found that the “brace” position, in which passengers prepare for impact by bending forward to touch their heads to the seats in front, does offer meaningful protection in the event of a crash. The scientists included dummies in three positions during the experiment: one in the brace position and wearing a seatbelt, one sitting upright with a seatbelt fastened, and one not wearing a seatbelt. According to the Daily Mail, “The dummy in the brace position would have survived the impact, the one not in the brace would have suffered serious head injuries, and the dummy not wearing a [seatbelt] would have perished.”

While the success of the brace position has been corroborated by multiple researchers, the equation of “back of the plane = safer” is not quite as conclusive. One study by Popular Mechanics supports the idea that the rear of the plane is safer, while a British Civil Aviation Authority/Greenwich University study found that passengers near the front of the plane were more likely to escape a crash-induced fire. Boeing’s own Web site simply says, “One seat is as safe as another, especially if you stay buckled up.” Survival rates vary widely depending on the circumstances of each crash.

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So what’s a safety-minded traveler to do? Being in or near an exit row is generally a good idea, and fliers sitting in the aisle seats may be more easily able to escape than those who are in less accessible window seats. Wherever you’re sitting, read the safety card, know the location of your nearest exit, keep your seatbelt fastened and follow all crew instructions in the event of an emergency.

Would this study make you think twice about upgrading to first class?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

heathrow airportSome of us love crowds. We can be found catching beads at Mardi Gras, hurling tomatoes at Tomatina and, at the London Games, ogling the athletes at the Horse Guards Parade — the venue for beach volleyball.

Not me. Ever since I spent a horrific New Year’s Eve in Times Square, I’ve been a bit crowd-phobic. The cheer isn’t enough to override the crowds and the commotion at the London Games. For the executive editor of our sister site, Cruise Critic, it’s the increased security at Heathrow that keeps her from London, even as a layover to Europe.

“The increased security is sure to add even more chaos to an already chaotic airport — and I still won’t feel completely safe,” Carolyn Spencer Brown told us.

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She’d like to avoid Heathrow this summer, but some airfare deals are making that difficult. “British Airways is offering cheap fares to Europe this summer,” Brown said. “I wonder if people are avoiding Heathrow.”

If they are shunning Heathrow and London, it’s a typical tendency to avoid visiting cities that host the Olympic Games. The Telegraph recently reported that Terry Williamson, chief operating officer of JacTravel, said “normal tourism” in past Olympic host cities post-Games dropped significantly during the events and “took some time to recover.”

Will the traffic, the crowds, the amped-up security, the missiles on rooftops keep you away from London this summer — even as a layover? Or will you be there — in the midst of it all? Vote in our poll below.

— written by Jodi Thompson

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.)

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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.

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— written by Dan Askin

active beach vacationThere seem to be two types of vacations — the busy and the beach. As wonderful as the busy vacation is — exploring cities and towns, experiencing new dishes and new views — it is the beach vacation that is, ultimately, considered the more relaxing, the more rejuvenating. Now there’s research to back that up.

A two-year study by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health examined the engagement of 2,750 Brits aged 8 to 80 with the natural environment. The research by Katherine Ashbullby and Dr. Mathew White found that all outdoor locations make us feel calm and refreshed. But it was the coast that was most psychologically beneficial, followed by the countryside. Urban parks were found least restorative.

Even after taking into account age, distance traveled, presence of others and the activity undertaken, participants still experienced the most positive feelings seaside. The researchers are unsure whether we enjoy the beach because we’re hard-wired that way or simply because we think we should.

The World’s Best Beaches

Surely, the sunshine at the shore is a factor. We need a bit of sun exposure each day to stay healthy. Our bodies produce vitamin D from the sun’s rays. The super nutrient not only protects us from heart disease, osteoporosis, and breast, prostate and colon cancers (according to the Archives of Internal Medicine), but it also helps guard against depression and insomnia.

Another recent study from the European Centre for Environment found that lower levels of sunlight are linked to allergies and eczema. So sunlight is good. But take care: Too much can cause severe burns, dehydration and skin cancer. It can even land you in trouble with the law, as it did recently for a New Jersey mother/tanning fan who is accused of taking her young daughter in a tanning booth with her.mom tanning booth

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Perhaps the most salient point we should take from the British study about the benefits of the natural environment is that exercise in the open air is what provides emotional benefits, connecting with nature. Not sitting on our duffs in the sun.

Sounds like a really good reason to make your next R&R a busy beach vacation.

— written by Jodi Thompson

royce leather RFID passport walletAs if travelers didn’t have enough to worry about. In addition to money belts to help us hide passports and credit cards under our clothes, there’s now a whole new line of travel gear to protect the electronic data stored on those documents.

Take the Royce RFID-Blocking Passport Wallet. This attractive leather case, which retails for $34, is designed to protect travelers against identity theft.

Since 2007, all U.S. passports have been issued with a small electronic chip embedded in the back cover. The chip uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to store information, including all of the identifying data printed on the front page of your passport, as well as a biometric identifier — a digital image of the passport photograph that can be used for facial recognition technology when you cross international borders. The information in the chip is transmitted via radio waves when the passport is scanned by an RFID reader.

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Your passport may not be the only document you carry that has an RFID chip; many newer credit cards have them as well. (If you’re not sure, look for the term “PayPass” printed on your MasterCard, “expresspay” on your AmEx or “payWave” on your Visa — or call your credit card company.)

The rise in RFID technology has raised concerns about just how securely these chips store our information. Anyone with an RFID reader who gets close enough to the chip would in theory be able to read the embedded data — including card numbers and expiration dates — even through clothing or a purse.

royce leather RFID passport walletDoes this mean you should race out and purchase an RFID-blocking wallet? Not necessarily. The U.S. State Department offers a detailed description of the security features of its electronic passports here, which explains that the passports themselves have RFID-blocking metal built into the cover — so the chip can’t be read unless the passport is opened.

I think a protective wallet would be more useful for credit cards, which seem to be at greater risk for data skimming. The cheapskates among us can also block RFID readers by wrapping their cards in aluminum foil — if you’re willing to lose a few style points.

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— written by Sarah Schlichter

full body scanner tsa airport securityEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our newsletter.

Just how safe are those full body scanners that are becoming a familiar fixture in airports around the U.S.? Not safe enough, says the European Union, which banned backscatter X-ray machines in airports across Europe last month, citing traveler health concerns.

Because the machines emit ionizing radiation, some scientists suggest that passengers who pass through the scanners could be at increased risk of cancer. One researcher interviewed by PBS/ProPublica predicts that the machines could potentially “give 100 travelers cancer every year.” (See the video below for the full report.)

The TSA staunchly maintains that the machines are safe. A spokesperson told us last year that “each full body scan with backscatter produces less than 10 microREM of emission, the equivalent to the exposure each person receives in about two minutes of airplane flight at altitude.” To read the entire statement we received from the TSA, see From Pat-Downs to Full Body Scanners: The TSA Firestorm.

The backscatter machines are one of two types of full body scanners used at U.S. airports. Millimeter wave machines (which are still legal in Europe) are generally considered the safer option because they use lower-frequency electromagnetic waves instead of radiation.

If you’re concerned about the backscatter machines, you have a few options. Before you step through the security checkpoint, ask the TSA agent which type of machine is in use. If your lane has a backscatter scanner instead of a millimeter wave machine, you may want to skip the scan entirely and choose a pat-down by a same-gender TSA agent instead. Also, keep an eye out for the old-fashioned metal detectors, which are still in use in many security lanes across the U.S.

Are you concerned about the safety of the backscatter machines?

— written by Sarah Schlichter