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a row of airplane seatsThings in the United States are generally bigger than in the rest of the world. Cars are bigger, meal portions larger; in general, everything is supersized. Except when it comes to airplane legroom.

Anyone who has recently flown in economy on a U.S.-based airline is painfully aware of the lack of space between one seat and the next — both next to you as well as in front of you. At just 5′ 2″ I often feel cramped and squished into my seat. Putting my bag underneath the seat in front of me makes it even worse, robbing me of what little room I have to stretch my legs.

This lack of space is pervasive on U.S.-based airlines. So when CN Traveler published an article called “Which Airline Has the Most Legroom? A Complete Guide” my attention was piqued. Could I discover which of the major airlines I use have the most legroom? Even if it meant driving the extra hour to JFK airport rather than Newark, I’d do it for an extra inch of space!

Get the Best Airplane Seat

Reading the article brought good and bad news.

The bad news: Unless I’m prepared to move to Canada, I’m just going to have to get used to less legroom. Air Canada offers the largest pitch (the distance from the headrest of one seat to the headrest behind it) range of all the airlines, coming in at 29 to35 inches. JetBlue is actually better; even though the maximum amount of legroom you’ll find on a JetBlue plane is slightly smaller (34 inches), the minimum amount of legroom is 32 inches. Unfortunately, JetBlue only flies to a small percentage of the destinations I typically fly to.

The good news is that United (my Newark-based airline) and Delta rank third in terms of seat pitch. Both provide anywhere from 31 to 33 inches of legroom. American and US Airways planes provide slightly less at 31 to 32 inches of legroom.

The disparity was apparent to me even in “upgraded” seats on two recent flights: one a transpacific flight to Tokyo in a United Economy Plus seat and the second a transatlantic flight to the U.K. in an American Airlines Cabin Extra seat. I don’t have the actual measurements, but I can assure you the difference was clearly felt.

Air Canada and JetBlue also can provide the most seat width, though some Air Canada planes actually offer the narrowest seats, as well. Seats on United, Delta, American and US Airways are all the same width, but are also beat out by AirTran, Hawaiian and Allegiant.

Surviving the Middle Seat

At the opposite end of the spectrum, predictably, Spirit Airlines is the stingiest when it comes to legroom. But more surprising, Southwest planes are narrowest.

For now, I can only hope United keeps its seats the way they are. That way, I know I’m close to getting the most legroom available in the U.S. (with Delta), even if it’s only an extra inch. And when the opportunity arises, JetBlue here I come.

How important is legroom to you? Would you drive to an airport further away if it meant getting a bigger seat?

– written by Dori Saltzman

airplane seatsTwo United Airlines passengers got one heck of a time-out on Sunday when an argument over a few inches of space escalated, leading to the rerouting of their plane.

According to the Associated Press, the fight began when an unnamed male passenger attached a Knee Defender — an apparatus that clips onto your tray table to prevent the person in front of you from reclining — to his seat so he could use his laptop uninterrupted. Although United Airlines has banned the gadget on its flights, the passenger refused to put it away when asked by members of the cabin crew, prompting the unnamed woman in front of him to throw a cup of water in his direction.

At that point, the Denver-bound flight, which departed from Newark earlier that day, was only halfway to its destination when the pilot made an unscheduled landing at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to have both passengers removed.

Although police met the plane when it landed and questioned both passengers, it was deemed to be a customer service issue, and no arrests were made.

The kicker here, though, is that both passengers were sitting in the plane’s Economy Plus section, which already offers more legroom than standard economy seats to begin with.

The Etiquette of Seat Backs and Elbow Room

So what do our readers think about space and whether fliers are entitled to it?

“As tight as seats are getting, they should not recline,” says Julie Reiss Justice on Facebook. “I have had my iPad smashed from a seat reclining quickly … I personally will not recline.”

Tom Vertrees agrees that space is limited, but comes to the opposite conclusion: “Airlines shouldn’t squeeze seats so close together in the first place. If the seat reclines then it should be allowed.”

And Joshua Senzer wonders why the situation escalated so far in the first place: “The device is banned by United, the carrier in question. The fact that the individual failed to comply with [flight attendant] requests to remove it is telling in regards to those who would rather use something like this than simply attempt communication with another human … just my .02.”

10 Annoying Habits of Our Fellow Travelers

What do you think? Is it rude for passengers to recline their seats? Should the use of devices like Knee Defender be allowed? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

airlinesThis post is part of our “Airlines Behaving Badly” series, which chronicles the oft-wicked ways of the air travel industry.

I’m leaving on a trip this Sunday and for the first time in my life I packed early and I packed light. Save the toothbrush, I crossed the toiletry Ts and dotted all the iPad Is into my carry-on suitcase so I could spend the rest of the week anticipating my travels and not dreading packing. But wouldn’t you know it, three major airlines — American, Delta and United — have reduced the size of an acceptable carry-on yet again (it flew under the radar until recently). I am flying one of these lines, and of course when I measured my bag, roughly 24 X 15 X 9, it was too large. The new size regulation — apparently enacted by United in March but effective immediately — is 22 inches long by 14 inches wide and 9 inches high, skimming a collective 5 inches off of what was a perfectly fine carry-on bag just weeks ago, and rendering my treasured, nearly new (expensive) indigo suitcase totally useless against checked-bag fees.

Pinned to a new FAA regulation (according to this article on Airfarewatchdog.com), it’s curious that fellow airlines JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin America and Frontier have maintained their 24 X 16 X 10-inch carry-on allocations.

Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

Upon further review, George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, reflects that although the changes are subtle, they are being strictly enforced by the TSA and not as clearly explained by the airlines. The standard of a 45-inch maximum outside linear dimension is made null if the dimensions exceed any of the newly specified maximums. So in other words, 21 X 14 X 10 may meet the 45-inches-total guideline, but not the new 9-inches-high guideline. Therefore, the risk of having to re-pack, being sent to the back of the check-in line and potentially missing your flight is a real one — all traced back to a difference of one inch.

Whether it’s a regulation based in research, a ploy to cash in on more checked bags or simply a way to keep travelers on their toes, it’s exhausting keeping up with all the policy updates. I was finally ahead in the travel race, only to be handed a penalty card.

Have you encountered any trouble at the check-in counter lately? Vent about misguided measurements in the comments below.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

airport plane woman gate suitcase United Airlines generated a collective groan from travelers over the weekend by saying it will be strictly enforcing its carry-on baggage requirements, which limit each passenger to one personal item (like a purse, laptop or briefcase) and one carry-on bag with a maximum size of 9 x 14 x 22 inches.

The issue, however, isn’t with the size of the carry-on luggage allowed; other major carriers, including Delta and American Airlines/US Airways, have the same dimension restrictions. Instead, what’s upsetting is that United will now be charging checked-bag fees for any carry-ons that must be gate-checked due to noncompliance — even if passengers have used their carry-ons for years with no trouble fitting them in the overhead bins.

Of course it’s annoying when you see fellow flyers waddling onboard under the weight of a purse, a backpack, a computer bag and a carry-on that you can just tell exceeds regulation. But instead of making the boarding more efficient, charging for gate-checked bags is certain to slow down the process.

The Carry-On Challenge: How to Pack Light Every Time

United also charges for the first checked bag for each passenger, so it’s understandable that many would attempt to bring slightly larger carry-ons to avoid baggage fees. (Meanwhile, two popular U.S.-based airlines — JetBlue and Southwest Airlines — allow each passenger to check at least one checked bag at no charge. To boot, the carry-on dimensions for both lines exceed those of United and the other major carriers at 10 x 16 x 24 inches.)

Ultimately, United’s decision to charge for the gate-checking of carry-ons reminds us quite a bit of the policy of ultra-discounter Spirit Airlines: one personal item can be brought for free, but passengers are charged as much as $100 per bag — each way! — for the privilege of boarding with a carry-on that won’t fit under the seat in front of them.

At this point, it wouldn’t surprise us one bit if United eventually starts charging for things like bathroom privileges (don’t laugh — this was proposed a few years ago by European discounter Ryanair) and oxygen.

4 Signs You Have a Packing Problem

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

airplane seatsFor every long-legged traveler who’s sick of being pretzeled into increasingly small airplane seats, a new study offers insight into how to land yourself a few precious extra inches of legroom.

Routehappy.com surveyed U.S. airlines in search of “Roomier” seats — those with at least 32 inches of seat pitch — that travelers could find in regular economy class without having to pay extra. The carrier on which you’re most likely to find these is Southwest Airlines, which offers nearly 1,000 domestic flights a day with Roomier seats (this reflects 31 percent of all Southwest flights). Alaska Airlines came in second with 752 flights, or 96 percent of its daily offerings.

While those airlines win out due to the sheer number of flights they offer, it’s worth noting that a couple of smaller airlines, JetBlue and Virgin America, offer at least 32 inches of seat pitch on 100 percent of their planes. JetBlue’s A320 planes have a generous 34 inches of seat pitch, and they’re wider than average to boot. Virgin America’s seats are also wider than most, offer 32 inches of seat pitch, and have both Wi-Fi and power outlets — a combination that you won’t find fleetwide on any other airline, according to Routehappy.

In all, you can find more spacious seats for free on 13 percent of domestic flights.

Secrets of the World’s Best Airlines

If you’re willing to pay extra for more space, you have plenty of options. Routehappy reports that of the 22,000 domestic flights that take off each day in the U.S., 9,000 of them have more spacious economy-class seats available for purchase. (Delta and United have the most, followed by American and JetBlue.) On international flights, 47 percent of the 1,800 daily departures have Extra Legroom Economy or Premium Economy options.

You can download the full report at Routehappy.com. The site also offers fare searches with results ranked by “happiness score,” which takes seat size, airplane amenities, length of trip and flier ratings into account.

Check out our tips for How to Get the Best Airplane Seat.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

room serviceTwo recent announcements from the hotel and airline industries may signal new travel trends — neither of which is particularly a good sign for consumers.

In a move reminiscent of when airlines began cutting services, a handful of hotel companies have said they will be reducing or dropping room service. According to Fox News, the New York Hilton Midtown revealed it will be getting rid of room service, replacing it with a cafeteria-style eatery. The hotel blamed a decline in demand, but will undoubtedly be saving money with the move. Another New York City hotel following suit is the Grand Hyatt 42nd Street, which reduced room service hours. Outside of New York, the Hilton Hawaiian Village eliminated room service as well.

While I’m not a frequent room service customer, I do appreciate the option … especially if I have arrived at my destination late, feel grungy and am too tired to trudge out to the hotel’s restaurant.

Hidden Hotel Fees

And it’s not like it’s a free service the hotels are eliminating. Room service is notorious for being expensive, so if customers are willing to pay, I don’t really understand why hotels can’t always have it as an option.

Fortunately, not all hotels are jumping onto the bandwagon. A Marriott International, Inc., spokeswoman told Reuters the company has no plans to eliminate room service.

Going in the other direction (at least on the face of it), United Airlines is trying to make it easier for passengers to take advantage of all the “extra” services the line offers, like additional legroom and checked bags. The airline has launched two subscription services that enable fliers to pay one fee to get access to some of the services it normally charges extra for. For instance, from $349 a year you can get “free” checked bags on every flight you take. Or, from $499 a year, you can guarantee yourself an Economy Plus seat. For either subscription, you must select the region you’ll be flying in; the more destinations you want to include, the higher the price.

The subscription service is supposed to save passengers money in the long run. But you have to fly at least 14 times (or seven round trips) in order to start saving on checked bags, assuming you’re only checking one bag in North America.

Seven Smart Ways to Bypass Baggage Fees

The exact number of flights you need to start saving on Economy Plus seats is much more vague, as the pricing of those seats varies by travel distance and when you purchase them.

So unless you’re a very frequent flier within the United States and Canada who wants to check just one bag, you’re probably not going to save a dime by taking out a subscription. Instead, United will just make more money off of you.

It seems to me that’s exactly what both of these companies are trying to do: make more money and reduce expenses by eliminating traditional customer services or continually charging more for them.

And that’s an overall trend I’m not a fan of.

– written by Dori Saltzman

airplane silhouetteI have just as many gripes about airlines as the next person, and given that I’m a travel journalist, I tend to smile and nod vehemently when they’re crucified for decreasing seat sizes and charging for things like carry-on bags. But I can’t keep my mouth shut on this one.

After analyzing federal data, a group of private researchers says airline complaints from passengers increased by about 20 percent in 2012, despite more on-time flights and fewer lost bags, the Associated Press reports.

While I agree that customer complaints are bad — in an ideal world, there would be none at all — the article goes on to say this: “United Airlines had the highest consumer complaint rate of the 14 airlines included in the report, with 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers.” Forgive me if I sound insensitive, but is there really a reason to be terribly concerned if the worst offender generates only four complaints for every 100,000 of its passengers?

And let’s not forget this added tidbit: “That was nearly double the airline’s complaint rate the previous year.” Oh, the horror! Now four of every 100,000 United passengers are angry instead of two? I think I just heard the audience gasp.

To be fair, these numbers only include the passengers who were annoyed enough to report their grievances to the U.S. Department of Transportation; there are probably many more who took their complaints solely to the airline. And of course, seeing the number of complaints double is never a good sign. But let’s keep things in perspective.

Does Your Flight Attendant Hate You?

The AP also notes that larger planes and smaller seat sizes, which allow airlines to cram more passengers onto each plane, still aren’t enough to offset the decreased number of available flights — meaning last year saw a rise in the number of passengers bumped due to overbooking. “The rate at which passengers with tickets were denied seats because planes were full rose to 0.97 denials per 10,000 passengers last year, compared with 0.78 in 2011.”

In plain English, it means that of every 10,000 passengers, less than one person gets bumped because his or her flight is full. Can I get a big, fat “so what?”

Let’s focus on what the airlines are doing right. Want your bag to get to your destination at the same time you do? You’re in luck. According to the AP, the mishandled bag rate was 3.07 in 2012, down from 3.35 bags the previous year (and a high of 7.01 bags back in 2007). That means about three of every 1,000 bags were mishandled in the last two years. Yes, I’ve had lost luggage, and I know that for those three passengers, it’s terrible. But the stats are getting better.

The same is true for on-time arrivals, about 82 percent of which arrived on time in 2012 — an improvement over the 80 percent that landed on time in 2011.

I happen to think this is a positive outlook for the industry. Now, if only someone could figure out ways to speed up the security process and keep that middle seat unoccupied.

16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster

What do you think? Is the report full of hot air, or does it have merit? Weigh in below.

–written by Ashley Kosciolek

dog in carrier When I moved back to the United States from Romania, where I’d been living for two and a half years, I brought home a new husband and, just as importantly, our cat. We’d rescued her from an animal shelter two years before and there was no way we were leaving her behind. So we jumped through all the hoops presented to us — finding an FAA-compliant crate outside of the U.S., getting our cat micro-chipped, having a vet create a pet passport (basically just a record of her health and vaccines) — before my husband crated her up one November morning and brought her with him to the airport for his Lufthansa flights from Bucharest to Frankfurt and then Frankfurt to New York City.

Fourteen hours later my husband and cat arrived safely at JFK. It never really occurred to me that he would land safely and she wouldn’t. But after reading about a recent investigation by NBC Bay Area, I’m counting my lucky stars it turned out so well.

Turns out lots of animals don’t make it. Most stories don’t get into the news, but some do — like the case of former model Maggie Rizer. Back in September 2012, her 2-year-old golden retriever died during a flight from the East Coast to San Francisco.

Perhaps the most famous of all mistreated pets was Jack, the Norwegian forest cat that disappeared in JFK airport after an American Airlines baggage handler dropped his crate. Though he eventually turned up after falling through the ceiling in a customs area, he was so sick and dehydrated that he had to be put down.

Sadly, these stories are not as uncommon as we’d like to think. According to the NBC Bay Area investigation, 302 animals have died, been injured or disappeared while in the care of commercial airlines over a six-year span. The most common cause of death as determined by the airlines was “unknown.” Other common causes — again, as determined by the airlines themselves — were pre-existing medical conditions, escapes from the kennels, self-infliction and natural deaths.

The investigation even revealed which airlines have the worst record. Delta Airlines saw the most tragic outcomes, followed by Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Continental and United (those last two are now one single entity).

Traveling with Pets

So, does knowing all this make me think twice about flying my cat in the future? You bet it does! What’s worse than knowing that my animal may not be safe in an airline’s care is reading about how the airlines do everything in their power to deny any responsibility for the deaths. Going forward, if I can’t drive to a destination with my cat, then she’s just going to have to fly coach with me.

Have you ever flown your pet somewhere? What was your experience like? And do you think airlines have a responsibility to get your pet to their ultimate destination safe and sound? Weigh in below.

– written by Dori Saltzman

airport waitThis week, super-storm Sandy grounded planes and snarled travel itineraries across the Eastern Seaboard and beyond, with some travelers still marooned even now. In today’s Friday Free-for-All, we want to hear from readers whose travel plans were affected by the storm. Did you have to reschedule a flight, cancel a hotel booking, reroute a train trip or make a travel insurance claim? Was your airline or other travel provider helpful in responding to your dilemma? Tell us in the comments below!

Several staffers from our sister site, Cruise Critic, shared their own Sandy stories.

Managing Editor Colleen McDaniel gives US Airways a gold star for its assistance during the storm. “Six hours before my flight was scheduled to depart from Norfolk to Philadelphia, I got a call notifying me my flight had been canceled,” she told us. “I called US Airways to reschedule, and was able to speak to a real, live person who helped get me booked on a flight a few days later. Sandy came and went in Virginia, causing damage and some power issues, but when it hit New Jersey, knocking out power to millions and causing widespread damage, I realized I was better off staying put. When I explained the situation, the US Airways agent was perfectly agreeable to another switch. I wasn’t charged a dime for the changes either time, and the agents were perfectly pleasant despite, I’m certain, some tough customers.”

Foul Weather Travel Tips

Senior Editor Dan Askin was also booked on US Airways, but his experience was complicated by the fact that he’d booked with frequent flier miles. “When the airline announced to the world it was waiving change fees … we didn’t apply,” he said. “Naturally, there were no ‘awards eligible’ seats available on any flights leaving inside of three days, so there was nothing for us, ostensibly the most loyal fliers, to switch to. Our only option — if we wanted to avoid change fees or recoup the miles — was to wait until the flight was actually canceled. We did so, and were able to rebook on a Wednesday flight. Then that was canceled, so we scrapped the trip altogether.”

United Airlines gets mixed reviews from Editor-in-Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown, who was scheduled to fly from Newark to Istanbul for a cruise. The airline canceled her flight a full two days before the storm even arrived. “At least I had some notice and could make an effort to find another route, but United was absolutely unreachable — as a platinum member all I could get was a fast busy signal when I called. I didn’t even have the pleasure of being put on hold,” she said.

Brown generally doesn’t recommend that cruisers book airfare through their cruise line — “they usually cost more and don’t accommodate personal preferences” — but in this case, asking for help from her cruise line, Regent Seven Seas, saved her trip. “A quick e-mail to Regent’s air/sea department at midnight resulted in a rebooking on Swiss Air, same night, though this time from JFK. It got me onboard — and on time.”

The takeaway? Brown told us she’ll consider booking a cruise line’s airfare for complicated itineraries; that way, “you’ve got back-up if you need it.”

4 Common Travel Disasters and How to Prevent Them

How did Sandy affect your travel plans? Share your story in the comments.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

united airlines airplaneI was hunched over my laptop, searching for flights to Montreal, when I hit pay dirt. I’d first checked fares a month or two earlier, only to see unpalatable prices in the $500’s and $600’s for a roundtrip flight from the East Coast. But when I looked this time, they were under $350. Score!

Excited, I consulted Bing.com/travel, which offers a Price Predictor tool that advises travelers whether to purchase or wait for a cheaper fare. “Buy,” said Bing, claiming with “80% confidence” that fares would continue to rise. Clearly the time was right to pull out my credit card.

Except for one little problem. It was a Saturday night, and I couldn’t book until I’d confirmed my desired vacation days at the office on Monday. Who knew how much the fares might change in 48 hours?

Then I noticed an option called “FareLock” on the United Airlines Web site. “United’s FareLock service allows you to hold your itinerary and fare for 72 hours or seven days, for a fee, and is available on select flights. So go ahead and book your flight while you complete and confirm your travel plans. Our FareLock service will guarantee an available seat and the fare you were quoted at the time you booked your reservation.”

Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare

I’d never been so happy to pay an airline fee in my life. For a nonrefundable $14, I was able to hold my seats, itinerary and fare for the following week, giving me time to clear my vacation days with the office and to keep an eye on the fare to make sure it didn’t drop any lower. It didn’t; nor did it go up as I’d feared. In the end the sub-$350 fare was still available a week later when I finally booked it, and would have been even without the FareLock. But as someone who’s been burned in the past by wildly fluctuating airfares, I don’t consider that $14 wasted — to me, the peace of mind was worth every penny.

FareLock has been around for nearly two years now (it started as a Continental service, then was adopted by United after the carriers merged). So why haven’t more airlines followed suit? It seems like a win/win: useful for travelers who need a little more time to book, and lucrative for airlines that are eager to scoop up yet more revenue in fees. As of now, the only airlines I know of that offer similar services are KLM, whose “Time to Think” option allows travelers to lock in an itinerary for up to two weeks, and Spanish carrier Vueling, which permits a 24-hour reservation hold.

See the Latest Worldwide Airfare Sales

A new Web site called steadyfare.com, currently in beta, could offer some promise on this front. The site allows travelers to lock in a given “steadyfare” for a particular itinerary, and hold it for two to four weeks. But the site is a long way from prime time; the airports and travel dates available are currently very limited, and you can’t yet choose your preferred airline or flight schedule.

Have you used FareLock or similar services on other airlines? Are they worth the price?

– written by Sarah Schlichter