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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

Thanks, Jack.

I’m talking about Jack LaLanne, the fitness pioneer who died Sunday at age 96. I have a few years to go before I hit that milestone (well, five decades), but you have to hand it to the guy: he knew how to keep it healthy. And he was an “exercise guru” before anyone really knew what that term meant.

I remember watching Jack on TV as a kid, doing jumping jacks in sync with the chiseled marvel. Today, I struggle to touch my toes. But adventure travelers should look to Jack for inspiration, because nothing can be more ruinous on a vacation than not being prepared for the rigors of a particular destination.

I’m thinking back to a trip I took eight years ago to the Galapagos. I still feel badly for the older travelers among the 29 explorers on our boat — by the end of a strenuous seven-day sail among the islands, three were so worn out they refused to leave the vessel. While the rest of us were looking at blue-footed boobies, they sat on deck chairs staring out to sea. I remember the wildlife expert assigned to the ship bemoaning the fact that they’d blown a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Fast-forward a few years to the Grand Canyon. For months, I’d been preparing for a rim-to-rim trek, working out five days a week, going for miles-long hikes around Washington D.C. and walking seven miles to work with a fully loaded backpack. It wasn’t enough. By the time I reached Phantom Ranch in the bowels of the canyon, my left knee was throbbing, my back aching. The 105-degree temperatures didn’t help. I can’t remember much about getting out of the canyon the next day, except that it was excruciating.

grand canyon


Two years later, I did it again, this time preparing twice as long and arriving with better hiking poles, knee braces and a more realistic attitude. Ok, I battled a stomach bug the night before, but I still made it down in good time — and pain-free.

Now I’m preparing to do it again. I just joined a gym, I’m hiking on the riverside trail that edges my backyard and I’ve taken those knee braces out of storage. All I have to do now is get reservations at Phantom Ranch, which is easier said than done, alas, but well worth the effort.

And Jack? Something tells me that at my age, Mr. LaLanne could have made the hike blindfolded and shoeless — and he sure could do a mean jumping jack.

– written by John Deiner

tsa disability notification card airport security“I have two titanium plates in my foot. How can I ease the process of going through security?” wondered an IndependentTraveler.com reader in a recent e-mail. These days, she’s not the only traveler who’s concerned. Since the highly publicized incident in which a bladder cancer survivor’s urostomy bag was ruptured during a TSA pat-down, leaving him covered in his own urine, travelers with various medical conditions have been worrying about how they can prevent their own nightmarish encounters at airport security.

The TSA has come up with one idea that should help (or so we hope!): new disability notification cards (PDF) that travelers can print, fill out and bring with them to the security checkpoint. The cards have a space to enter information about any relevant health conditions or medical devices, though they also include the following caveat: “Presenting this card does not exempt you from screening.”

I’ve long advised travelers with disabilities or medical devices to bring a doctor’s note (preferably on letterhead) explaining their condition — so I’m glad that the TSA has now introduced an official and discreet way for travelers to educate and inform security screeners. But will this truly put an end to the health-related horror stories we’ve been hearing for the past few months? We’ll have to wait and see.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane food airline mealEgg nog at a holiday party … Grandmom’s homemade sugar cookies … those can’t-eat-just-one gift chocolates from a client at work … is it any wonder December is the hardest time of year to stick to a diet?

For travelers trying to count calories on the road, it can be even more difficult — especially since most food served on airplanes is salty and fattening (and it often tastes lousy, to boot). However, there are some healthy options out there for air travelers who are watching their waistlines.

DietDetective.com recently released its annual airline food survey to spotlight the most — and least — nutritious menu items on a variety of U.S. carriers. The survey included both small snacks and meals, whether given out free or available for purchase.

According to the survey, United and JetBlue top the list for the healthiest choices. United earns kudos for its Lite snack box; featuring lemon pepper tuna, pita chips, chocolate-covered pretzels and unsweetened apple sauce, it adds up to just 430 calories (the equivalent of 112 minutes of walking). DietDetective.com also likes JetBlue’s 484-calorie Shape Up meal box, with its nutritious combo of hummus, pita chips, almonds and raisins.

Weighing down the bottom end of the scale is US Airways, for its “poor overall choices and not much variety.” If you’re traveling on a morning flight, for example, you’re better off packing your own breakfast than buying the French toast sandwich box (a diet-busting 705 calories).

For more help maintaining a healthy lifestyle on the road, see Eating Well and Staying Active.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

eiffel tower paris Either we travelers should seriously be worried, or this is just another day in an unstable, unpredictable world. Yesterday, the State Department issued a travel alert for U.S. citizens visiting Europe in response to the threat of terrorist attacks from Al Qaeda. Travelers in Europe should “take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling,” cautions the State Department. Several international governments, including Japan and the U.K., have also issued warnings for travelers in Europe.

Although information detailing when and where the attacks might happen has been vague (to put it mildly), authorities have been clear about one thing: this is not a travel warning instructing citizens to cancel their travel plans. This is a less-severe travel alert, which means the State Department is simply telling people to be watchful and aware.

Travelers have been abuzz over the State Department’s ambiguous warning, which leaves much to the imagination. Short of staying home, what exactly can we do to protect ourselves when faced with an alert covering a vast continent? The State Department recommends that citizens visiting Europe register their travel plans with the U.S. Embassy (you can do so here); yet it provides no clear-cut instruction beyond this one tip.

Seeing that terrorist attacks — as well as theft, kidnapping and other crimes — take place every day around the world, smart travelers know to be on guard when touring public places. Is this warning really of any use to already vigilant vacationers?

When I’m standing in line at a popular international attraction, wedged into a plane seat or holding on to the ceiling bar on a crowded European bus, I’m continually conscious of two things: the location of my valuables (particularly my passport and wallet), and who and what is around me.

I keep my eyes open. I’m not traveling in Europe presently, but if I were, I don’t imagine I would change my behavior in response to this recent travel alert. How about you?

–written by Caroline Costello

toilet A reader recently wrote to IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter with concerns about one of our feature stories, The World’s Best (and Worst!) Toilets:

“Dear Sarah,

You don’t write about toilets in this way! Shows that you are poorly educated and low class. Helping people finding decent restrooms would be better rather discussing the worst. Those should be avoided.”

Admittedly, our story on noteworthy toilets around the world (and its sequel, The World’s Best and Worst Toilets: The Sequel!) probably won’t win any Pulitzers. But let’s face it: Sometimes traveling can get messy — especially when nature calls and you’re faced with a dirty hole in the floor on an Indonesian ferry or a disturbingly public urinal in Amsterdam. A sense of humor is a traveler’s best resource when it comes to coping with scary bathrooms.

We did mention several excellent restrooms in both of our toilet stories — but to find more, check out The Bathroom Diaries or Sit or Squat, both top-notch resources for finding sparkling clean toilets around the world. Sit or Squat even has mobile apps for various kinds of phones that help travelers seek out bathrooms on the go.


–written by Caroline Costello