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woman bed pillows frustrated insomnia hotel roomI set the alarm, switched off the lamp and plopped down into my hotel bed, so deliciously soft and inviting that it felt like landing on a cloud. Curling up into my mountain of pillows, I settled in for a much-needed night of shuteye … when there suddenly came a teeth-grating sound from next door. “Oh, my God!! Stop texting me! Stop it! No, you shut up! My grandmother will hear!”

I don’t know about Granny, but I could certainly hear the dulcet tones of my pre-teen neighbor in the next room, who appeared to be having her own personal slumber party at 12:15 in the morning. I gritted my teeth for 15 minutes or so, pulling the duvet over my head to block out the sound — but that just left me suffocating under the blankets while my neighbor’s whiny voice bored through the barrier like an angry mosquito.

I considered my options (besides wringing her skinny neck, which I quickly but reluctantly discarded). Should I pound on the wall? Call the front desk? Trudge out into the hallway, barefoot and squinting, to knock on her door and beg her to let the poor, tired grown-ups around her sleep?

I went with the first option. A rap on our shared wall and a polite “Could you please keep it down over there?” seemed to startle the girl into an abashed silence, and I finally drifted off to sleep.

The next day, I asked a hotel staffer whether I did the right thing. She said I could have called the front desk, who would’ve sent a security person up to the room to warn my noisy neighbor. Per this hotel’s particular policy, after three such warnings a guest would be asked to leave.

Good to know. But on my next trip, I’m adding something new to my packing list: ear plugs.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

airplane Is there something in the air? In this instance, the answer is yes. In the past few days, we’ve noticed a spate of reports regarding air travel that have left us overjoyed, irked or just plain exasperated. Let’s start with the exasperating one first and work our way down to a little good news.

Something’s not kosher here.

EasyJet, a budget airline based in the United Kingdom, has apologized to passengers bound for Israel after it mistakenly loaded a pile of pork products onto the aircraft. According to the Jewish Chronicle, passengers were offered “ham melts and bacon baguettes” during the flight, which originated in London. Other news outlets added that the airline normally serves kosher and vegetarian sandwiches on flights to Israel.

You wanted to go where?

An 80-year-old wheelchair-bound woman was inadvertently allowed to board a flight bound for Charlotte, N.C., when her destination was actually Dulles International outside of Washington D.C. The CNN report says the woman “allegedly received someone else’s boarding pass from a Delta Air Lines employee,” and then somehow made it through security and into the air with the mismatched ticket. The woman, who’s from Ethiopia and speaks no English, was reunited with her family on Sunday evening, hours after she arrived at the wrong destination. The airline and the TSA are investigating.

Well, we knew this was coming.

USA Today is warning travelers that the sudden rise in oil prices and increased overall demand for fewer seats will most likely lead to higher fares for both business and leisure travelers. It quotes airfare expert Tom Parsons as saying, “The higher the fuel goes, the more you’re going to have to pay. We could see another round of fare hikes very soon.” He says if you see a good sale for a summer fare, jump on it.

And, finally, some good news.

If you’re worried about whether you’re going to arrive safely once you set foot onboard a jet, an AOL Travel dispatch on a recent International Air Transport Association report should help put your mind at ease. “Airlines flying Western-built jets globally had the best safety performance in 2010 in the history of aviation, with only one crash per every 1.6 million flights,” it says, adding that “2.4 billion people flew safely in 2010 on 36.8 million flights, 28.4 million on jets and 8.4 million on turboprops.” There were 17 major crashes last year, compared with 19 in 2009; however, when Eastern-built jets are included, the overall number rises to 94 accidents — compared with 90 the previous year.

— written by John Deiner

broken suitcase “Hey, buddy, stuff’s falling out of your bag,” said a customer in line at the Denver Airport Hertz. My suitcase zipper was ripped, and I was leaving a trail of balled socks and rolled T-shirts.

US Airways had ruined my bag. But beyond ranting to strangers on the Internet (there are enough stories of satanic airlines taking pleasure in stuffing passengers into sardine cans, gleefully destroying baggage and watching us boil as we stumble through the customer service labyrinth), what recourse does a flier have when his bag is destroyed?

Like most airlines, US Airways requires that passengers report any damage to checked bags at the airport. With US Airways, this must be done within four hours. (Some carriers allow up to 24 hours, but the complaint still has to be made at the airport.) So I zipped back to the baggage claim.

“I’m sorry, sir, we see this happen all the time,” said the claim rep. She told me that airlines are not liable for damage to wheels, feet, zippers and extending handles. “When the baggage handlers throw the bags, the zipper rips off the fabric.” Do they see a lot of smashed zippers when they gently place the luggage on the belt? She obviously had no answer, but she gave me a number to call and register a complaint.

I was then told to e-mail my story to Central Baggage Resolution, a Phoenix-based office only reachable by e-mail. I imagine CBR as a digital bonfire that’s endlessly destroying correspondences. I learned that once CBR receives my claim, it’ll be 14 – 21 working days before I hear from them.

As I continue to hold my breath, I’ve started researching other ways to protect checked bags in the future. My plan of choice is simply to never check a bag, but here’s some info I found:

Both third-party insurers and credit card companies sometimes offer baggage insurance. American Express, for instance, offers free and for-fee baggage protection policies for card holders. I called Amex to learn about its $9.95 per roundtrip flight “premium” baggage policy, which covers checked bag damages up to $1,000. Here’s how it works, according to the customer rep: “File a claim with the airline at the airport. Get the denial.” Then file a claim with AmEx. The claim is reviewed with a licensed rep — but obviously there’s no guarantee that they’ll rule in your favor. The representative did say, however, that there are technically no exclusions for type of damage, ripped zippers included.

According to Smarter Travel‘s Ed Perkins, third party insurers can vary widely — and again, it’s up to fliers to start with the airline, get the denial (or some coverage if you’re lucky) and then file a second claim with the insurer. As always, it’s essential to read the fine print to see what the coverage cap is and if there are exclusions for certain types of damage.

Quite honestly, it all seems like a massive hassle. I paid $50 for someone to rip my bag, rendering it unusable without turning it into a silver mummy. I just want my $50 back. And maybe US Airways could throw in the $3.69 for the roll of duct tape.

Have the airlines ever lost or ruined your luggage? Share your story!

–written by Dan Askin

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

Flowers, chocolates, Champagne and … Mickey Mouse?

If Disney characters don’t exactly top your list of prerequisites for romance, you might be surprised by the findings of a recent Orbitz survey on Valentine’s Day travel. Based on bookings for the coming weekend, the site named its three most popular destinations for Valentine’s Day getaways: Las Vegas, Orlando and Cancun.

I’m not too shocked that Sin City made the list, considering that some 100,000 couples tie the knot there each year. But fighting the kiddie hordes at Disney World or getting trashed with a bunch of coeds in Cancun doesn’t really strike me as the epitome of romance.

If you’re dreaming of a getaway just for two, uncluttered by casinos and crowds, we have a few less-traveled alternatives to recommend:

1. For a truly serene desert getaway, forget about Las Vegas and head for Sedona, Arizona. Winter is one of the quietest times of year here, and the area’s trademark red rocks are often lightly dusted with snow. This is the perfect season for you and your partner to cozy up together in a romantic bed and breakfast, or indulge in a couples’ massage at one of the area’s many spas.

sedona red rocks snow winter arizona

2. Just a few hours southwest of Orlando, the beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel Island feel a world away. By day, you can go kayaking, explore the secluded shores of Lovers Key and collect seashells as mementos of your trip (this part of Florida is one of the country’s best spots for shelling). By night, you can sit on the sand with your sweetheart and watch the sun sink down into the Gulf of Mexico. Learn more in Florida’s Many Faces and Places.

fort myers beach florida

3. Skip the mega-resorts and hard-partying atmosphere of Cancun and head instead to St. John, the least developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two-thirds of the island is protected within Virgin Islands National Park, including the soft sands of Trunk Bay; its calm, clear waters and wide, white beach make this a perfect spot for snorkeling, swimming and relaxing in the sand. Couples can go hiking in the national park or take a scenic horseback ride through the mountains. Learn more in St. John Essentials.

trunk bay st john usvi

Don’t miss our Seven Secrets for a More Romantic Trip.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

bellhop bellman hotel suitcases bagsYou walk into a hotel with a couple of suitcases, fully intending to bring them up to your room yourself. But a bellhop in the lobby, eager to help (and, well, eager to get a tip), leaps forward and grabs your bags. How do you react?

In a recent interview with manners maven Lizzie Post (great-great-granddaughter of Emily), we touched on the topic of hotel tipping, including what to give a bellhop who’s stored your bags for the day. But we didn’t get a chance to chat about what to do when someone forcefully offers a service that you don’t actually want.

So we want to hear from you, our well-traveled readers: how would you respond to an overly enthusiastic bellhop?

A. Just let him take the bags and give him a tip — it’s not worth making a scene.

B. Let him take the bags but don’t tip. You didn’t ask for the service, and you don’t want to reward pushy behavior.

C. Politely but firmly say, “No, thanks, I’ll carry them myself,” and wait for him to drop the bags.

D. Make a mad lunge for the bags and start an impromptu game of tug-of-war, with onlookers in the lobby taking bets on who will win.

Vote or suggest your own response in the comments!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

trevi fountain rome italyIt’s traditional for visitors to Rome to throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain to guarantee that they will return someday to this most historic of Italian cities. But thanks to a new tax on Roman hotels, museums and other attractions, tourists will have to dig up a lot more than a single extra coin to pay for their next trip to the Eternal City.

As of January 1, 2011, non-residents must pay an additional tax when they stay in a hotel or pay an admission fee in Rome, CNN reports. For hotels, the tax varies based on what type of accommodation you choose. Here’s the breakdown:

Four- or five-star hotel: 3 euros ($3.89) per person, per night
One- to three-star hotels: 2 euros ($2.60) per person, per night
Campsites, bed and breakfasts: 1 euro ($1.30) per person, per night
Admission fees to museums and other attractions: 1 euro ($1.30) per person

Children under the age of 10 are exempt from the tax.

The city expects to rake in about 80 million euros ($103.6 million) a year from the new tax, which will be put toward improving cultural heritage and city infrastructure, according to CNN. But local hoteliers worry that the additional fees could deter potential tourists and business travelers.

Naturally, I’m not a fan of any tax that makes it more expensive to get up and go. But is it worth saying arrivederci to Rome over a few extra euros? Let us know what you think in the comments.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

fish skeletonI once examined a meal on the road as a scientist would an alien life form: with extreme care, a sense of awe and absolutely no intention of consuming it.

The setting was Moscow, 1997. Outside, old women who’d lost their pensions hawked cigarettes amid the Soviet gray of sky and concrete. We were in a “three-star” hotel dining room in a dingy, slightly bug-ridden hotel. Was there a menu? No, just a cast-iron skillet filled with lumpy white plasma.

The first taste was reminiscent of potatoes. A gooey, glue-like consistency left the food sticking to the roof of my mouth. With each bite, my oxygen intake was further diminished. (Was this an espionage tool to asphyxiate foreign dignitaries during State dinners?) The beverage to wash it down was a steaming carbonated liquid with an unidentifiable berry-like fruit on the label. The berry seemed to be glowing. Birds, which we all know can eat things humans can’t, were swarming the berry bush.

Thirteen years later, the acid-aftertaste still clings to the back of my tongue.

After a few bites, I could no longer swallow. So I explored with my fork, scalpeling through the membranous top layer and delicately separating glob from chunk. The consistency was creamy in places, milky in others. After some careful rooting, I exhumed … a fish skeleton. The whole thing struck me as a morbid version of the Kinder egg sold at the nearby souvenir kiosks. But instead of a plastic toy inside a chocolate egg, I got a rotting fish skeleton inside a noxious blob of potato-matter.

This was in the early days of digital photography, so no one thought to use their 35 mm or disposables on a food shot. Hopefully the prose picture was enough.

I’ve vomited up mine, so now it’s your turn: What’s the worst meal you’ve ever had while traveling?

— written by Dan Askin

cancelled canceled airport departure board flight statusJust a week after snowstorms grounded air traffic across Europe, the U.S. Northeast found itself besieged by a blizzard of its own. The storm has forced the cancellation of nearly 10,000 flights over the past few days — and a columnist for Daily Finance, Peter Cohan, notes that many of these flights were canceled even before the snow started.

Cohan’s flight was one of them. “On Sunday, my family had been expecting to fly back home to Boston from Milwaukee,” he writes. “But Frontier Airlines … canceled our flight, cheerfully notifying us that we could catch another one five days later.” Rather than sitting around in Milwaukee for the better part of a week, Cohan and his family rented a car and drove home instead. Even though his plane would have arrived before the worst of the blizzard that hit Boston, Cohan instead had to shell out extra money for the rental car, gas, hotels and meals for the two days it took him to drive across the country.

The early axing of Cohan’s flight is part of a growing trend that New York Times aviation reporter Matthew Wald calls “pre-cancellation.” Hoping to keep their planes from being stranded at airports where bad weather is expected, many airlines are opting not to fly to those airports at all, instead canceling the flights and sending the planes to other unaffected destinations. It’s good news for some travelers, as Wald explains:

“The advantage is suppose you have a plane that was supposed to go from LaGuardia to Charlotte to Orlando, if they [had] flown into New York, they could not have gotten back to Charlotte and then they couldn’t gotten from Charlotte to Orlando. This way, at least, they can fly back and forth between Charlotte and Orlando.”

This strategy also helps protect the airlines from financial losses by keeping people moving (and seats full) instead of leaving planes stranded for days at snow-struck airports. And it makes it easier for the airlines to avoid the hefty fines that the Department of Transportation has instituted for planes that sit more than three hours on a tarmac — up to $27,500 per passenger.

But is this strategy fair to passengers like Cohan, whose plane could have arrived safely before the blizzard hit? Is his anger justified, or are the airlines simply making the best of a bad situation? Let us know what you think in the comments.

–written by Sarah Schlichter

crying child Imagine you’re 6’1″ (like me), a tad claustrophobic (like me) and no fan of air travel (I think you know where I’m going with this). Now throw in a packed flight from Philadelphia to Miami, and a young couple and their boisterous 18-month-old (“Sadie just loves to chat!”). Top it off with three hours of jostling, screaming and general unease — and those were her parents.

It could have been worse. At least the kid settled down for half an hour to ogle a “Yo Gabba Gabba” DVD, which I also found relentlessly fascinating.

I love kids. I do, really. But I’ve never been cornered in an airline seat for so long with a raucous child, who was so adorable it was almost easy to brush off her antics. And her parents were (somewhat) sympathetic to my plight, going as far as to offer me a napkin when an exploding juice box ended up splashing my face.

As luck would have it, a colleague headed in the same direction on another flight had a child seated near him, though with far less intrusion. (Ok, he was asked to switch from one aisle seat to another to accommodate the family, and was rewarded with a snack and a free cocktail for his effort. Envious? Me? A little.)

The New York Times recently addressed this very issue, reporting that some people are pushing for separate sections for families onboard planes, and others are pushing for kid-free flights. Let’s face it: This has been an issue forever, and the article’s 350-plus reader comments attest to that fact. The Times went to Air Transport Association spokesman David Castelveter for his take on the childless flights, and he wasn’t too encouraging: “This is an industry that’s working very hard to return to profitability. No way is any airline going to discourage someone from taking one flight over another. I just can’t see that happening.”

I can’t see it either, and I don’t really want to resort to that anyway. Kids are kids, and I probably squirm more during a flight than anyone. Over the long term, it’s the adults (drunk, loud, obnoxious, obese, etc.) who cause more vexation on a flight than anyone.

As for kids, I have a few tricks to ease the pain when I’m seating near some rowdy young’uns:

Keep your cool. Don’t scowl, mutter, grumble, etc. The kids aren’t going anywhere, and being angry for hours on end during a long flight is a waste of energy.

Engage with the parents. They’re going to be your true allies, and they feel your pain more than you realize, so offer an encouraging word or hold baby’s binky while mom and dad wrestle him into his seat.

Say something. Sometimes parents don’t realize that junior is kicking the back of your seat, so let them know. Nicely. (If they knew it all along and brushed it off, shame on them.)

Bring earplugs or an iPod. When the going gets rough, try to tune it out.

How do you cope when trapped at 32,000 feet next to a crying child?

Read More: Avoiding Children While Traveling

— written by John Deiner

And you thought your last airport delay was bad.

Check out this footage from Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, where Air India passengers were apparently stranded for up to 15 hours earlier this week without any information about why their flights were delayed:

Gotta love the blank looks on the faces of the Air India employees as frustrated passengers repeatedly press them for information. “What — you think we know what’s going on?”

Over the past few days, Air India has faced some upheaval (including baggage disruptions and flight delays) in the process of moving its domestic flight operations at India Gandhi International from Terminal 1 to a new Terminal 3, reports New Delhi Television, an Indian news network. It’s not clear whether the preparations for the move may have contributed to the incident in the video above.

Air India is apparently untroubled by the reports; on its Web site is a press release celebrating its “smooth transition” to the new terminal.

You May Also Like: Airport Delays: Six Ways to Cope

–written by Sarah Schlichter