Explore. Experience. Engage.

Home Travel Tips Travel Deals Destinations Trip Reviews Blog
The IndependentTraveler.com Blog

overweight woman stretch stretching water bridge deckShould obese people have to pay for extra seats on a plane? In recent weeks, there’s been a revival of one of the travel industry’s perennial controversies; this time the debate was sparked by Southwest’s attempt to bar two overweight women from a flight, even though they’d flown without incident on previous legs of the same trip. (They were eventually allowed to board.)

It’s an issue we’ve covered several times over the years — see Airline Obesity Policies and Is Kevin Smith Too Fat to Fly? — but as a reader recently reminded us, there are other concerns facing obese travelers that don’t get anywhere near as much press.

“I’m a big girl. I’m 5’9″ and 265 pounds. Sometimes I worry about booking things because they won’t accommodate my size,” wrote member acurves on our message boards. “I’m going to be in Hawaii for two weeks this June, and there are so many things I want to do! Parasailing, dolphin encounters, catamaran sailing, snorkeling, etc. I’m just afraid that I’m too big to do those things.

“Trust me — I want to do these things. I may not move much at home, but I’m an active girl on vacation. I love hikes, walks around the city, being active. I’m definitely not lazy when I’m on vacation. I just want to know if any other bigger people have done the things I listed above. It would be embarrassing to go and have them say I’m too big!”

It’s true that some activities do have weight restrictions, usually for safety reasons. For example, UFO Parasailing, a company that runs excursions on Lahaina, Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii, lists a weight limit of 450 pounds for two or three people flying together. (The svelte travelers among us aren’t necessarily off the hook: to fly alone, you have to weigh at least 130 pounds.) The Sky Trek Canopy Tour in Costa Rica, a zip line operator, does not permit guests weighing more than 217 pounds; in addition, your waist may be no larger than 58 inches, and your thighs no bigger around than 30 inches. (This is to make sure you can fit into the safety harness.)

Other activities, such as snorkeling or dolphin excursions, are much less likely to have weight restrictions. But keep in mind that a certain amount of agility may be required; paddling through the sea with your snorkel and flippers may be easy enough at any weight, but clambering up a narrow ladder onto a dive boat could be difficult for larger travelers who are less active.

Your best bet for any type of activity is to contact the operator directly before you book. Ask not only about weight limitations but also about the level of fitness required to participate safely in the activity. Many tour operators will do their best to accommodate people of all sizes and physical abilities.

Has your weight ever restricted you from doing things you wanted to do in your travels?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

man mountain lake view happy success arms raisedClose your eyes and picture the perfect traveler. Would she be toting the finest-quality luggage, speak a dozen foreign languages fluently and have a magical knack for never getting lost?

If you don’t resemble this paragon of travel perfection, don’t fret. I’d argue that the qualities that make for successful and memorable trips are much more mundane — and can be developed by any traveler.

Useful: The ability to read a map.
Essential: The ability to chill out when you inevitably get lost.

Sure, your companions will thank you if you have a knack for deciphering a subway map or navigating a flawless route from Point A to Point B. But even with a map, even with a handheld GPS, even with “you can’t miss it” directions from the guy at the local newspaper stand … I promise that sooner or later, you will wander off course. How you respond to getting lost spells the difference between a sour afternoon of arguing with your spouse over who’s to blame and a serendipitous detour to a place you might never have found otherwise.

Useful: A good bag.
Essential: A good packing strategy.

While I’d never minimize the value of a sturdy, well-constructed suitcase, what’s more important is what you put into it — and what you don’t. Even a “Miracle Bag” can’t save you from overweight fees if you’re a chronic overpacker, or help you remember the umbrella you always seem to leave at home in the closet. Forget buying some $400 piece of luggage and instead invest a little time in improving your packing strategy: create a packing list that you can customize for each trip, and think back over your last few vacations to evaluate which items you really could’ve left at home.

Useful: A stomach of steel.
Essential: An open mind (and a stockpile of Tums, just in case).

If you’ve ever eyed a steaming plate of mystery meat with trepidation, you might have wished you were one of those travelers with an ironclad stomach — like the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain, who munches his way through the street food of the world with almost nary a taste of food poisoning. But according to Bourdain, it’s not his biology but his sense of adventure that keeps him from getting sick on the road: “My crew — who are more careful and fussy about street food, get sick more often — almost invariably from the hotel buffet or Western-style businesses,” he told WebMD. While I encourage travelers to take reasonable precautions (see our Food Safety Tips for ideas), don’t let fear get in the way of trying those unique local delicacies.

Useful: Fluency in a second (or third, or fourth…) language.
Essential: Fluency in the universal language of hand signals and smiles.

According to a report in the New York Times last year, only 9 percent of Americans speak a language besides English. Guess that explains the sheer number of Yanks bumbling around the world asking, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” Knowing the local language can ease your trip in countless ways, which is why I’d always recommend learning as many basic vocabulary words as you can before a trip. (Hint: “Restroom” should be one of them.) But keep in mind that when you hit a language barrier, you can often convey just as much — if not more — with a simple smile.

Which qualities would you add to this list?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Does a woman with stage IV breast cancer hoping to die in her Korean homeland belong on the no-fly list? Earlier this week, Seattle-based Northwest Cable News reported that Korean Air had barred Crystal Kim from flying out of Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport over the weekend — even though Kim presented clearance from doctors and was traveling with her daughter. Ms. Kim has rebooked with Delta and is hoping to make the flight today.

Editor’s Note, May 13, 2011, 11:35 a.m.: MSNBC reports that the Kims did indeed fly yesterday, and that Delta upgraded them to first class.

Korean Air technically has the right, as do all air carriers, to deny passengers if they’re determined to be too sick to fly. The airline said it feared Crystal could die onboard and traumatize other passengers.

Here’s the video report from Northwest Cable News:

While Ms. Kim’s sad story may have something of a positive outcome, you may or may not be surprised at who — and what — else has issues getting airborne:

Bulldogs: Delta announced in February that it would no longer carry American, English and French bulldogs. As the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, it seems that a disproportionate number of these flat-snouted, respiratory-issue-prone canines were dying in flight.

Pregnant Women: Not all policies are the same, but most airlines restrict women in late-stage pregnancy from flying without a note from a doctor, a special examination from an obstetrician, clearance from an airline’s special assistance team or all of the above. There’s often a distinction between flying on domestic and international flights, so check individual policies.

The Contagious or Comatose: While Ms. Kim’s disease was obviously not contagious, there are other ill passengers airlines can bar from flying. Those carrying a contagious disease or other infections — flashing back to 2009, H1N1, for instance — should always check carrier rules before boarding. Not surprisingly, an airline can also bar a passenger from boarding if he or she is comatose; passengers must be able to follow emergency procedures.

— written by Dan Askin

american flag usa stars and stripesBy now, most travelers are aware of the global travel alert released by the U.S. State Department in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death on Sunday. The alert, which expires August 1, 2011, advises U.S. citizens “in areas where recent events could cause anti-American violence … to limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations.” The State Department also recommends that travelers keep their eye on local news, stay in touch with family and friends at home, and enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which allows travelers to receive the latest updates and information from the government.

But just how worried should travelers be? Earlier today we checked in with Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of our sister site CruiseCritic.com, to get a sense of whether anything has changed for travelers abroad. (Brown is currently traveling in the United Kingdom.)

“Certainly, people are talking about it, but at this point there’s no concrete confirmation of any [security] changes, and I don’t expect there to be quite yet,” Brown told us in an e-mail. “A lot depends on what [the U.S. government finds] in the intelligence, and there’s a feeling that there will be a backlash that could impact travel but it’s just too early to tell (by backlash I mean an attack somewhere in retaliation).”

It’s difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary travelers to predict where a potential terrorist attack might occur — and the State Department seems to be reinforcing that uncertainty by making its recent alert “worldwide.” But that doesn’t mean travelers are canceling their trips to huddle up under the bed at home.

IndependentTraveler.com’s managing editor, John Deiner, who’s cruising the Med this week aboard Carnival Magic, reported this morning that so far everything there is business as usual: “No one has said a thing about security on the ship! We were in Croatia yesterday, and it might as well been Miami … no one advised us to do anything differently.”

And @AnjaniLadki told us on Twitter that she’s not planning to make any changes to how she travels: “Being cautious, alert and applying common sense ought to do it. [The] rest is up to fate! Not doing anything different than I would’ve a week ago.”

Facebook user Lora W.M. summed it up most succinctly: “[Terrorists] will never scare me enough to stop doing what I love.”

We advise readers planning overseas trips to take a look at any government warnings or alerts that apply specifically to the destination they’re visiting, and to enroll in the State Department’s STEP program to stay abreast of current news. For more useful tips on staying safe abroad, as well as links to travel alerts from other governments besides the U.S., see our story on Travel Warnings and Advisories.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

dog cat suitcase pet travelThe screaming baby, the armrest hog, the big sweaty guy who forgot to put on deodorant — these top many travelers’ lists of undesired airplane seatmates. But one reader recently wrote in to complain about a fellow passenger of the furry, four-legged variety:

“On an Alaska flight, a cat was placed behind me. I was not asked if it was all right with me. I have medical problems with cats and do not want to travel with cats or dogs. … I should have been told at the time of reservation that animals were going to be onboard, so I could have made a decision not to travel on that flight. … Let animals stay in the cargo area where they belong. They leave behind scents and hair.”

It’s true that the rights of traveling pet owners currently trump the rights of passengers who start sneezing as soon as they even look at a cat or dog. Part of that, of course, has to do with money; airlines rake in anywhere from $75 (Southwest) to $125 (Delta and American Airlines) every time someone brings his or her pet into the cabin. But it can also be a matter of safety. While thousands of people ship their pets in the cargo hold every year, there are plenty of horror stories about animals dying during the process — often due to extreme hot or cold temperatures while the plane is sitting on the ground. (Cargo hold climate controls kick in only when the plane is actually in flight.)

So what’s an allergic traveler to do? First off, when you check in for your flight, ask an airline staffer whether there will be any animals onboard. If so, the agent may be able to help you find an alternate flight. Of course, change fees or other penalties may apply.

If you’re on the plane before you realize you’ve been seated next to someone’s furry friend, speak with the flight attendant — he or she may be able to find someone else willing to switch seats with you, especially if you have a pressing health concern.

Do you think it’s fair for pets to be allowed on planes? Vote in our poll or leave a comment below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Hampton Inn CommercialSometimes you don’t want to know if something is clean or not (in my case, it’s just about anything I order in a restaurant). Other times, it’s all you can think about.

That’s the contention of a new Hampton Inn ad questioning the cleanliness of sheets in other hotel chains. Let’s take a look.

Effective, right? Perhaps, but according to an interesting piece by consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, it’s a little over the top. Writes Elliott, “Sheets are usually changed between guests, and sometimes state law requires it, but there’s no guarantee that they will be.” He does contend, however, that “it’s probably safe to say that all major hotel chains, including Hampton, instruct their housekeepers to change sheets between guests.”

Elliott indicates a few gray areas to keep us on our toes — for instance, what happens if a housekeeper sees a made-up bed but assumes incorrectly that no one slept in it the night before, then doesn’t swap out the linens? What-if’s aside, his overall conclusion is reassuring: “It’s possible for you to end up sleeping on someone else’s sheets. But if you’re staying at a major hotel chain, it’s highly unlikely.”

That’s the sort of thing I like to hear, though truth be told, I wonder about a lot of other things when it comes to hotel cleanliness. For instance, when’s the last time the bathroom was really scrubbed — and why is there hair in the drain? What’s that weird stain on the duvet? Actually, inasmuch as most hotels don’t wash bedspreads between guests, I try not to think about who — or what — was on top of that duvet before me.

Were those drinking glasses sanitized before they were placed in the room? Or were they left over from the last guest, simply rinsed out and deemed “ready to use”? Depends on where you’re staying. According to our guide on finding a clean hotel room, “It’s the law in both Missouri and Kansas that hotel room glasses and cups must be sanitized. Kansas’ law goes even further to state that washing of glassware must take place outside of the room.”

I have a friend who won’t go barefoot in a hotel room, for fear of what may be lurking in the carpet. I’m not that bad, but … well, now I’m thinking about that duvet.

— written by John Deiner

southwest airlinesAfter canceling roughly 600 flights over the weekend, Southwest Airlines grounded an additional 70 flights today. Reuters reports that Southwest continues to cancel flights for the purpose of inspecting its Boeing 737 planes, one of which was forced to land prematurely on Friday due to loss of cabin pressurization caused by a hole in the plane.

According to the Southwest Airlines Web site, ongoing testing has resulted in the detection of “small cracks” in two planes in addition to the damaged Boeing 737 that was grounded on Friday. Such cracks are formed by repeated pressurization and depressurization over time, which causes stress on the body of the plane — and they’ve been known to bring down a flight, writes Salon.com. The infamous 1985 Japan Airlines 747 crash that killed 520 people was caused by a tear in the plane’s bulkhead.

This time, no one was hurt, with the exception of one flight attendant who sustained minor injuries when Southwest Airlines Flight 812 descended to its emergency landing. But hundreds of Southwest travelers have, without a doubt, been inconvenienced in the past few days. Fortunately, they’ll get their money back. In accordance with its policy on delays and cancellations, Southwest is offering passengers booked on delayed or canceled flights the option of rebooking travel at no charge or receiving a refund for the unused portion of the fare.

Southwest’s iron-clad customer service policy notwithstanding, the thought of flying in a plane with a hole or a crack is terrifying — and hard to forget. Regardless of whether these faulty planes are the airline’s fault, Southwest doesn’t look good.

This news comes on the heels of a succession of further problems plaguing the airline, including a fizzled launch of Southwest’s new Rapid Rewards program. (Several apologies for the debacle, during which a command center outage on top of a barely functional Web site caused headaches aplenty for Southwest customers, have been posted on the airline’s blog.) Southwest’s stock, reports The Wall Street Journal, plummeted by 3 percent today.

Can Southwest repair its reputation? Will you continue to fly with the airline?

— written by Caroline Costello

cell phone airplane plane man businessmanI knew the guy would be trouble the moment I spotted him ambling up to the Miami International Airport gate from which my Continental flight was leaving. I was on my way back to Philadelphia last week from a convention, and I just had a feeling that the unkempt loudmouth yakking on a cell phone and clutching a plastic cup of red wine would be sitting uncomfortably close to me.

I was wrong, of course. He was next to me. The last one on the plane, he stumbled down the aisle, looked at me huddled in the window seat, muttered an obscenity and squeezed himself into the middle. He immediately took out his phone and continued the argument he’d evidently left behind on the concourse.

Truth be told, I’m not a good flier, forever fearing every little bump and groan the aircraft makes. So I tend to take “rules” seriously, never questioning whether to put my seat back in the full and upright position or to turn off small electronics. My seatmate was a different breed — after the flight attendants made the announcement to stow away anything with a battery, he hung up the phone and started to text instead.

This went on for 10 minutes. No flight attendants caught onto the fact that his phone was still on, though I couldn’t get my mind off of it. Uncharacteristically, I nudged him as we began to roar down the runway and said, “Tell me you’re going to turn that thing off before takeoff.”

He muttered another obscenity and turned it off.

So what sort of danger were we in? Very little, most likely. I checked the Web site of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which prohibits the use of cell phones on flights. In 2007, the agency considered lifting the ban, but didn’t. Here’s why: “The FCC determined that the technical information provided by interested parties in response to the proposal was insufficient to determine whether in-flight use of wireless devices on aircraft could cause harmful interference to wireless networks on the ground. … In addition to the FCC’s rules, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits in-flight use of wireless devices because of potential interference to the aircraft’s navigation and communication systems.”

The Discovery Channel’s “MythBusters” program put the interference theory to the test and came out with a reassuring result: It found there was a “one in a million chance that some new cell phone could interfere with those instruments.” Slim chance perhaps, but still not worth the risk. Check out a two-minute abbreviation of the show here.

So what happened during our landing? Naturally, the guy couldn’t keep his phone off. Minutes into our descent, he pulled out his cell and started texting again. Once again, no flight attendant reprimand came. But this time, I just stared out the window and wondered why so many people think the rules don’t apply to them.

How do you feel about the use of cell phones in flight? Leave a comment or vote in our poll.

— written by John Deiner

tired man suitcase traveler travel airport sleep waitEvery 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 (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

One hour, one day: That’s the ratio many experts use to explain how quickly your body recovers from jet lag. If you cross two time zones, allow yourself two days to adjust to your new schedule. If you’re headed from the West Coast to Europe, you could be dealing with the lingering effects of jet lag for a week or more.

Of course, no one wants to feel sleepy and disoriented for their whole vacation — so we asked our readers to share their best strategies for adjusting quickly to a new time zone. In Fighting Jet Lag: Tips from Our Readers, Host Bonjour offers one suggestion:

“When I got to Australia after nearly 24 hours in the air plus almost a day at LAX, it was 8 a.m. on a Monday morning, and I was all set to go to sleep. My innkeeper, a lovely woman, told me I wasn’t going to take a nap. I was going to have a shower and get changed, and she’d map out a fine walk for me that she knew would keep me out long enough — to try to get me on local time. Oh, how I wanted that nap, though it couldn’t match the feeling I had when the vista came up before my eyes — the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, sites I’d only ever seen in pictures.”

Other long-haul travelers swear by sleeping pills or homeopathic remedies containing melatonin (the naturally occurring chemical that helps your body regulate its sleep cycles). Get more information in our story on Jet Lag.

What’s your top tip for fighting jet lag?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane sick ill illness cough coldEvery 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 (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

Winter’s not over yet — and cold season’s still running strong. According to a well-known study, travelers are more likely to catch a cold on an airplane than during their day-to-day routine, a fact that won’t surprise anyone who’s ever been stuck next to a sneezing, sniffling seatmate at 33,000 feet.

In Avoiding the Airplane Cold, travel expert Ed Hewitt shares some helpful tips on keeping healthy in the air. One important thing to remember, writes Hewitt, is to stay hydrated: “It turns out that drinking plenty of water will not only counter the overall dehydrating effects of air travel, which can lead to headaches, stomach problems, cramps, fatigue and more, but can actually fortify your preemptive natural immune mechanisms to function considerably better.”

To stay hydrated in the air, of course, drink water — and lots of it. Carry a water bottle or some juice (buy this after you’ve been through airport security). Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Fliers may also want to purchase nasal mists to keep their mucous membranes moist.

Keeping hydrated while traveling by plane certainly isn’t a cure-all for the cold. But it’s one simple, easy way to keep your immune system strong.

What do you do to avoid colds while traveling?

— written by Caroline Costello