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airplanes travel planes sad suitcasesFrom the moment you book your plane ticket (want to select your seat in advance? That’ll be $10, please) to the day you roll up to the check-in counter and shell out $50 for your checked bags, the airlines leave no fee unturned. And this past weekend, most major U.S. airlines found yet another way to line their pockets at the expense of the flying public.

On Friday, Congress failed to pass legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. As of Saturday, FAA-funded construction projects have been put on hold, all non-essential employees have been furloughed and — most importantly for fliers — the agency has lost the ability to collect various taxes that normally go along with the purchase of a plane ticket.

Hurray! Cheaper airfare for everyone, right?

Well, no. Instead of passing the tax savings on to travelers, most major airlines are raising their fares to offset the cost of the taxes — and pocketing the difference. The Associated Press reports that American, United, Continental, Delta, US Airways, Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue have all increased their fares, typically by about 7.5 percent.

According to an earlier AP report, “Passengers who bought tickets before this weekend but travel during the FAA shutdown could be entitled to a refund of the taxes that they paid, said Treasury Department spokeswoman Sandra Salstrom. She said it’s unclear whether the government can keep taxes for travel at a time when it doesn’t have authority to collect the money.”

Editor’s Note: On August 5, the IRS announced that passengers will not be getting refunds for taxes paid during the FAA shutdown after all. You can read the IRS statement here.

There are a few airlines out there that are giving travelers a break, including Virgin America, Frontier, Alaska and Spirit. Yes, that’s the same Spirit we wrote about a couple of weeks ago as one of the ugliest airlines in the industry. But hey, we can give credit where it’s due. It’s nice to see Spirit making the customer-friendly choice for once.

As for the big guys, shame on them. Really, it’s no wonder we hate the airlines.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

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

airplaneWho’s the ace in the battle of the airlines? Consumer Reports released its U.S. airline rankings yesterday, revealing which golden carrier claimed the coveted number-one spot. The verdict? Southwest snagged the top trophy, with JetBlue a close second, and Alaska, Frontier and AirTran trailing respectively behind.

A poll of nearly 15,000 Consumer Reports readers ranked 10 airlines based on factors including seating comfort, baggage handling, cabin-crew service, ease of check-in, in-flight entertainment and cabin cleanliness. The airlines’ total scores were tallied on a scale of 0 to 100. Southwest secured 87, while JetBlue got a healthy score of 84. The biggest loser, US Airways, came in last with a score of 61.

Four of the survey’s five top scores were achieved by discount airlines — a verdict likely influenced by major carriers’ abundant baggage fees. Southwest and JetBlue permit passengers to check at least one bag for free, whereas major airlines charge for checked baggage on domestic flights. Customer service may also have played a part in pushing the big airlines to the bottom of the rankings. American, Delta, United and US Airways, the carriers with the lowest scores, all registered below average in the check-in ease and cabin-crew service categories.

But really, is anyone surprised? In The Real Reason Fliers Hate the Airlines, Traveler’s Ed compares most airlines to a bad friend: “Missed a connection or late to the flight due to bad weather? Too bad for you! We can’t fly due to bad weather? Too bad for you!”

Here’s another revelation that failed to shock me: In the seating comfort category, basically every airline save JetBlue and Southwest bombed — and even our winning discount duo scored average at best. Southwest offers 32 to 33 inches of legroom in its economy-class seats, which, according to stats on SeatGuru.com, beats economy-class seats on loads of major airline-operated planes by an inch or two (and sometimes even three: American Airlines’ leg-cramping Aerospatiale/Alenia 72 planes offer a paltry 30 inches of pitch).

An inch doesn’t sound like a lot. But when your knees are in your face and you’ve got four hours to go, even meager units of length become vital.

What are your picks for the best and worst airlines?

— written by Caroline Costello

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network. The TripAdvisor Media Network also owns SeatGuru.com.

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

couple hammock beach romance vacation travelSo it’s Valentine’s Day. Did you get the Hallmark card yet? The roses? The conversation hearts? The free booze on Southwest Airlines?

Yes, according to a Tweet from the airline, Southwest is giving away free “adult drinks” on all flights. Ostensibly, it’s meant to promote the airline’s tweaks to its Rapid Rewards loyalty program, but it’s timed nicely to coincide with all the lonely hearts flitting around the country today. If you miss it, not to worry: The airline is repeating the promotion on St. Patrick’s Day (hmmm …).

If you’d rather save some money than suck down a gratis gin and tonic at 30,000 feet, Spirit Airlines is offering $50 off round-trip flights with a special holiday deal. But move fast: You have to book by 11:59 p.m. ET today and fly from February 17 through March 4. Isn’t it romantic?

If you prefer the sea to the air, several cruise lines are offering special enticements for those who book over the next few days. In a sale starting today, for instance, Azamara Club Cruises is offering a bonanza of extras (a $500 onboard credit, Champagne, strawberries) for passengers booking an outside or higher-category cabin on select European itineraries. Check out the details on this and several other promotions at our sister site, Cruise Critic.

If you’re as sick of this cold winter as the rest of us, Mexico may be beckoning. Book today and you can get 50 percent off rooms at the JW Marriott Cancun Resort or the CasaMagna Marriott Cancun Resort. You have to reserve by 11:59 tonight and use the promo code L9Z. Rates start at just $100 a night for travel through December 12, 2011.

Don’t leave home without our Seven Secrets for a More Romantic Trip.

— written by John Deiner

southwest airlines airplane air travel sky airlineTwo of the biggest discount airlines in the U.S. will merge next year when Southwest Airlines buys AirTran in a $1.4 billion deal, reports the Associated Press. The acquisition has been approved by the boards of both companies, but is still subject to shareholder and regulatory approval. Assuming everything goes through, the deal is expected to take effect in the first half of 2011.

What does this mean for travelers? Airline mergers typically spell reduced competition and higher fares — and this may well occur in cities where Southwest’s routes overlap with AirTran’s (such as Baltimore/Washington and Orlando). But there are a few silver linings too.

Travelers who’ve been waiting for Southwest to extend its low fares to cities outside the U.S. will get their wish; the airline will absorb AirTran’s current routes to Cancun, Punta Cana, Montego Bay and other vacation destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean. In total, Southwest will gain access to 37 new cities, including Atlanta — which has been the biggest hole in its network. The airline will also strengthen its existing presence in major cities like New York and Boston.

Perhaps the best news of all? Once the airlines are fully integrated, Southwest does not plan to keep AirTran’s checked baggage fees (currently $20 for the first bag and $25 for the second).

What do you think of the proposed merger — will it help or hurt travelers?

–written by Sarah Schlichter