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Air Travel Airline Industry News Health & Wellness Travel Technology Travel Trends

So Long, Middle Seat? What Plane Seats Might Soon Look Like Due to COVID-19

Plane seat manufacturers have released some crazy iterations of new cabin designs in the past, typically aiming at increasing the number of already-cramped seats on board. You might remember the standing Skyrider 2.0 “seats” conceptualized for short flights, or these stacked lie-flat beds from hell for longer flights—both of which saw hypothetical designs that never materialized.

But now, with a global pandemic in full swing, it seems the same seat makers are focusing more on protecting passengers than packing them into plane cabins. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s an interesting focus on banishing the middle seat.

Aviointeriors, the same manufacturer that designed those standing plane seats in 2018, is revealing its latest plan for post-coronavirus cabins: Shields for personal space and a reversed middle seat.

Janus plane seats Aviointeriors.

It’s a far cry from riding an airplane like the subway a la the Skyrider 2.0’s standing design, and looks almost (dare I say it) comfortable, considering there’s no sharing arm rests, accidentally invading what few inches of personal space your neighbor has, or dealing with a coughing or sneezing neighbor. It does, however, beg the question of how larger people who require more than one plane seat would be accommodated, and whether or not seats would be able to recline.

Aviointeriors says “this arrangement allows all three passengers to be separated with a shield made of transparent material that isolates them from each other, creating a protective barrier for everyone. Each passenger has its own space isolated from others, even from people who walk through the aisle.”

Studies have proven that aisle seats are more likely to be subject to passing germs that can get you sick—window seats are exposed to fewer germs. It’s also worth noting that this new Avio design somewhat echoes Spirit airlines’ pre-pandemic switch to staggering middle seats on some aircraft, which gives middle-seat passengers more elbow room.

Aviointeriors has also designed a more simplified solution for plane seats: Seat-attachable glass shields called Glassafe. This simply adds dividers between the aisle, all three existing seats, and the window:

glassafe Aviointeriors plane seats.

These shields seem like an easier short-term solution, which begs the question of whether or not airlines could employ them soon. Video and photos posted by passengers in the U.S. have recently shown crowded planes are still flying, even with passengers in middle seats, and have recently made waves online. And with airlines and flight attendant unions speaking out about the need to protect passengers and themselves, this may be one quick-to-deploy option. Social distancing will likely need to go on for longer than just these few months—infectious disease expert Deborah Birx recently said distancing measures might be essential through summer 2020.

In the long-term, though, we may see the need for plane seats to be redesigned to divide passengers more—which could be just one of many ways travel could be changed forever by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon is a former news reporter who writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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At Home Packing

5 Cheap or Free Ways to Upgrade Your Travel Arsenal Now

Itching to be able to travel again? The time will come, and there are many ways you can prepare—but perhaps the best way is to upgrade some of your travel must-haves and test them out while you’re stuck at home.

Here are some cheap or free strategies for readying your travel arsenal with items that can also help you stay comfortable and relaxed at home.

Inflatable Back Pillows for Working from Home (and Eventually the Plane)

Therm-a-Rest’s Lumbar Travel Pillow.

Working from home can be rough on your back—as so many new remote employees are finding out. You know what else can be rough on your back? Plane travel. Use this opportunity to try out some travel pillows as a solution that can eventually double as the perfect plane pillow. I personally prefer a lumbar option like Therm-a-Rest’s Lumbar Travel Pillow, which provides support that prevents you from slouching and deflates to pack away when you’re not using it.

A Portable White Noise Machine

Yogasleep Rohm.

Getting a good night’s sleep is important in stressful times, plus it’s scientifically proven to be crucial for a healthy immune system. White noise machines can help, and portable ones like the Yogasleep Rohm are both affordable and perfect for packing when you get back to travel. The relaxing lull of white noise is a must-have in your too-quiet future hotel rooms.

Repair (or Damage-Proof) Your Suitcase

broken wheel on suitcase.

Don’t come out of quarantine ready to travel but with a broken or about-to-break suitcase. Short of buying a new, pricey spinner in these tough times, it’s worth considering that you can fix or break-proof your trusty carry-on. You can read more here about how to fix a broken suitcase, but some handy improvements include:

Use Luggage-Organizing Straps at Home

luggage organizing strap samsonite.

Another luggage add-on, organizing straps for packing can also be a handy at-home organizer you can look forward to using on your carry-on. The adjustable, buckled straps are perfect for organizing and hiding at-home cables that have become an eyesore, and later they’ll easily compress clothes and gear to pack smaller into a size-restricted bag.

Spring Clean with Packing Cubes

vagreez packing cubes.

Putting away your winter clothes to make room for spring ones is a lot easier if you employ some packing cubes to organize items into groups. Use your old packing cubes for storage and upgrade to some shiny new ones you’ll be eager to road-test later.

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Arts & Culture At Home Entertainment

8 Unexpected Travel Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen Yet

There are the classic travel movies you know about, and then there are the newer and lesser-known travel-centric films that inspire a surprising amount of wanderlust. If you’re stuck at home thinking you’ve seen all the travel movies worth watching and rewatching, think again—here are eight unexpected options, ranging from action-packed blockbusters to indie flicks.

Downhill (2020)

The king and queen of comedy have come together for a vacation movie we can all get behind. Downhill stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell on a fictional family trip to the Alps that goes awry and forces them to ask hard questions about their relationship, family, and overall life together.

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

No one asked for a Charlie’s Angels reboot, but the new female-directed action movie is a surprisingly perfect travel movie for its use of many dazzling city landmarks as famous backdrops to fight and chase scenes. The new round of Angels fight bad guys in Hamburg, Germany; Istanbul, Turkey; and Chamonix, France. Anyone who’s seen Hamburg’s Philharmonic, Istanbul’s bazaars, and Chamonix’s apres ski charm will be floored.

Midsommar (2019)

Who says a horror film can’t be a travel movie? Midsommar made waves in 2019 for its haunting depiction of a fictional Swedish town that celebrates midsummer—a time when parts of the region see 24 hours of sunlight per day—with rituals carried out by a pagan cult. Keep in mind that it’s less sunny Swedish scenery and more gore and terror.

The Farewell (2019)

An independent film that racked up rave reviews and accolades in 2019, The Farewell follows a Chinese-American family overseas to visit their grandmother and stage a fake wedding when she’s (unknowingly) diagnosed with a terminal illness. A charming travel movie based on a surprisingly true story, it illustrates the divide—and some surprising similarities—between China and “the West.”

Little Women (2019)

A reboot that actually lives up to the literary classic, writer/director Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version of Little Women takes viewers back in time to both colonial New England and Paris via filming locations travelers still visit today. Concord, Massachusetts—the area where the movie was filmed—is also home to the historic Louisa May Alcott House, where Alcott wrote and set her novel Little Women. But the movie goes beyond the gorgeous New England scenery to 19th-century Paris.

The Trip to Spain (2017)

In a lesser-known movie version of their TV show The Trip, British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon set out on a culinary journey to Spain as fictional versions of their still-famous selves. The old friends’ witty banter (and many celebrity impressions) color their visits to iconic Spanish historic sites and many mouth-watering restaurants—follow along with your own tapas and wine at home for optimal viewing. (Bonus: A new movie from the duo called The Trip to Greece is due for release in 2020.)

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Perhaps a more-expected movie than the others on this list: If you want to truly unwind with a hilarious and effervescent romantic comedy, there are few as over-the-top as Crazy Rich Asians, the 2018 blockbuster based on the novel trilogy by Kevin Kwan. Explore sparkling Singapore by way of a down-to-earth couple attending their first family wedding together, where old money and a new girlfriend clash in a surprisingly tender love story.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

If you liked Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited as a travel movie, you’ll love the director’s The Grand Budapest Hotel for its similarly whimsical framing of a far-off, complex place. The film follows hotel staff at a 1930s ski resort as they uncover a murder and a mysterious painting, which fill in the rich cultural history of Eastern Europe with plenty of dark humor.

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Categories
Experiential Travel Family Travel Outdoors Romantic Travel Senior Travel Solo Travel Student Travel Sustainable Travel Travel Trends

9 Whimsical Spring Flower Blooms We're Dreaming About

You don’t need to be a nature expert to appreciate the seas of colorful flowers that mark the end of winter each year, or to get lost in photos of them. Some of the world’s biggest and best spring flower blooms turn travel-worthy spots like national parks and famous cities into a sea of color.

The World’s Most Whimsical Spring Flower Blooms

Here’s where to look for a breathtaking dose of color in spring, and which ones offer livestreams.

Editor’s note: Due to COVID-19 concerns, the U.S. State Department is encouraging potential visitors to reconsider all travel. Read more here for updates on the situation and information on when it might be safe to travel again to destinations like the ones below.

Mount Fuji, Japan

Spring flower blooms

Every April and May, pink-hued flowers blanket the meadows at the base of Mount Fuji. The Shibazakura Festival marks the occasion, drawing crowds who stroll through the electric-pink fields and snack at the many local food stalls that set up to offer Japanese buns, ramen, soups, and more. During the peak spring flower bloom this is one of the most photogenic places in the world. You can livestream the blooms here.

Death Valley, Southern California

spring flower blooms

Southern California’s parks are home to many different types of spring flower blooms, and they come to life earlier than most thanks to the region’s warm climate. Death Valley National Park and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are popular for yellow and purple desert flowers that peek through the cracked desert floor as early as March. The Antelope Valley’s California Poppy Reserve becomes a sea of yellow, orange, and red poppies around April—and can look like a scene straight out of the Wizard of Oz. The small orange variation of poppy happens to be the state flower of California.

The California Parks Department offers a poppy live-stream here.

Keukenhof, Netherlands

spring flower blooms

If rainbow palettes of tulips don’t come to mind when you think of the Netherlands, it’s time to venture beyond Amsterdam. Spring is a great time to head into the countryside to discover windmill-dotted fields of bright tulips, which often bloom as late as May. The Flower Bulb Region is home to vast tulip farms as well as public gardens like Keukenhof—one of the largest botanical gardens in the world, and home to seven million flowers. You can virtually tour the gardens here.

Western Australia (September)

spring flower blooms

Take your pick of Western Australia’s incredible array of wildflower trails in September—the southern hemisphere’s spring. Guided or self-driven spring flower bloom tours are available in wildflower-blanketed Perth, along the Coral Coast, and as far north as Pilbara. Options include the Esperance Wildflower Trail, wild orchids south of Perth, and rainbow desert blooms in Broome to the north.

Valley of Flowers National Park, India

spring flower blooms

India’s Valley of Flowers is both a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its six miles of alpine flowers and rare, protected wildlife. Nestled between the Himalayas and the sacred Ganges River in Uttarakhand, the valley has 1,000 different species of flowers, including daisies, poppies, rhododendrons, lavender, and more. Hike along its waterways and through pastures blanketed in spring flower blooms—just keep an eye out for Himalayan black bears.

Monet’s House and Gardens, France

spring flower blooms

Claude Monet’s mesmerizing flowers don’t only exist in paintings. See the lavender and lily pad-filled settings that inspired his works in Giverny, France, where you can visit the Impressionist artist’s house and gardens. The grounds are separated into two main gardens: one around the house that includes an orchard and bulb flowers like daffodils, and an enchanting Japanese water garden across the street.

Texas Hill Country, U.S.

spring flower blooms

Combine wildflowers with wineries in Texas Hill Country, west of bustling Houston. Spring flower blooms come early to the Lone Star State, so you can get a jump start on summer by heading to Fredericksburg or Brenham to see the region’s famed bluebonnets—which the nearby Bluebonnet Wine Trail is named for. Stop at wineries and spot classic Texan ranches along the way.

Kew Gardens, London, England

Spring flower blooms

Spring flower blooms don’t have to require a trek from the city, especially if you’re in London. The U.K. capital has an abundance of gardens that come to life every spring, and Kew Royal Botanic Gardens is London’s largest UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its 300 acres house 27,000 colorful plants, and are thick with tulips, poppies, peonies, and cherry blossoms each spring. The gardens even offer online educational horticulture courses so you can learn to identify species of plants.

Tidal Basin, Washington, D.C.

washington monument with cherry blossoms tidal basin.

Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin is famously popular in spring for the thousands of cherry trees gifted to the park by the mayor of Tokyo, Japan, over a century ago. The pink and white buds explode into peak bloom all at once in a matter of just a few days, typically in March or April. The National Mall’s live webcam is here.

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Working From Home? Make it Comfy

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
At Home Health & Wellness Sustainable Travel

9 Workleisure Items for the Perfect Work from Home Outfit

We all know about athleisure: workout clothes worn outside exercising. But it might be time for the trend to move over for a more powerful alternative during this time of social distancing—workleisure. In short, workleisure is a work from home outfit that’s as business-appropriate as it is comfortable.

While you adjust to remote work (or embrace it, if you’ve been doing it all along), consider these work from home outfit items that are cozier than your work clothes, but a lot more polished than your sweatpants. Plus, they’ll eventually be perfect for the plane, especially if you want to be comfortable and still look stylish enough to get a free upgrade.

Comfortable Tops

Everlane work from home outfit shirts.

If all you need is a business-casual top half to get you through video conferences, consider more comfortable shirt options than your standard collared button-down. Everlane’s lightweight flannel tops and affordable silk blouses are versatile enough to go with any outfit beyond working from home. And they utilize travel-friendly fabrics like cooling cupro, so you’ll never want to take them off. Try the cupro mockneck blouse to top off your favorite leggings as a stylish and cozy work from home outfit. Everlane’s work shirts for men include collar-less options and classic button-downs made from higher-performance fabrics.

Airy Jumpsuits

work from home outfit jumpsuit SweatyBetty.

Wide-leg pants and flowing tops don’t always look tailored, but combining both into a stylish jumpsuit somehow works. The Serenity Culotte Jumpsuit by SweatyBetty is a perfect example that’s comfy enough for the couch and sleek enough for conference calls.

Active Trousers

work from home outfit Lululemon trouser.

Leggings that look like pants are key to both work from home outfits and plane outfits. Bridge the gap between business-casual and athleisure with workout brands’ take on a trouser, like Lululemon’s Essential High-Rise Trouser. Betabrand’s Dress Yoga Pants are also a cult favorite for business travelers—many of whom are now likely stuck at home, too.

A Stretch Blazer

work from home outfit Nordstrom stretch blazer.

To look extra presentation-ready, a modified, stretchy blazer is the perfect wardrobe secret weapon. There are surprisingly numerous options out there, with Nordstrom’s Stretch Wool Blend Sweater Blazer being a cozy favorite that comes in several neutral colors.

Active Skirts

work from home outfit athleta skirts.

You don’t need to play tennis to appreciate a good high-performance skirt with shorts underneath. Options from Athleta can camouflage as a work skirt, like the Soho Skort and Tee Time Skort (with pockets). Sure, your coworkers probably won’t see it—but you’ll feel more work-ready and definitely get some compliments from anyone you’re isolating with at home.

Merino Wool Everything

woolly work from home outfit shirts.

When in doubt, look for items made from merino wool—a natural fabric that’s much cooler and softer than regular wool, with added moisture-wicking and antimicrobial properties. Woolly Clothing Co. is a travel favorite for airy merino wool options for both men (including work-appropriate shirts and pants) and women. For even more men’s options Wool & Prince focuses on merino wool button-downs and polos that are wrinkle-resistant.

Shirt Dresses

work from home outfit wool& shirt dress.

A women’s merino wool option that affords you the luxury of working sans pants, Wool & Prince’s partner line, wool&, makes super stylish shirt dresses that you’ll never want to take off. Cozy merino wool dress options from wool& include swing, midi, and wrap dresses.

Pullovers

work from home outfit athleta sweatshirt dress.

Part sweatshirt, part work from home staple (mostly for those with more casual dress code standards), a comfy pullover is the closest thing to a hoodie you can wear while still being business-casual. Keep it cozy with a mock-neck version like L.L. Bean’s Marled Pullover, or elevate it with a sweatshirt dress like the Athleta Round Trip Sweatshirt Dress.

Loafers

Allbirds Tree Breezers

Slippers that won’t have you feeling like a slob, a new pair of loafers to wear around the house can make all the difference. Go merino wool with Allbirds’ Loungers for both men and women, or check out these shoe options that feel like slippers.

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product.

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Airport Fashion & Beauty Packing Travel Technology

9 Most Stylish Laptop Bags for Travel

Laptop bags aren’t just for the business traveler anymore—and they’re no longer relegated to the humble padded messenger bag. Stylish laptop bags now range from trendy backpacks to designer tote bags, and the best ones will protect your hardware as much as they complement your style.

They’re also the best underseat personal item for the plane if you plan on plugging in to watch a downloaded movie or get some work done; you’ll still have plenty of space for all your other in-flight necessities.

[st_related]How to Pack a Backpack: 5 Essential Tips[/st_related]

Stylish Laptop Bags for Travel

Here are the laptop bags to consider, according to how you travel and what your personal style is.

Dagne Dover Ryan Laptop Bag

Dagne dover ryan laptop bag

Redefine the standard messenger bag by opting for one made of high-performance fabric that stands out. Dagne Dover’s Ryan Laptop Bag is equal parts work and play. Its neoprene outer is strikingly stylish, and practical features include a back luggage-handle sleeve, two main zippered compartments, organizing pockets and elastic straps, a key leash, a cross-body strap, and two long tote handles that make it a shoulder bag to boot.

STM Goods’ Myth Backpack 18L

STM goods myth backpack

A sleek unisex backpack and laptop bag that’s not bulky, STM Goods’ Myth 18L has a 15-inch “slingtech” laptop sleeve—which means it suspends your laptop to shield it from potential bumps and pressure. And it has several more cool features: hidden cable feeds so you can charge your electronics, AirPod and non-tangle headphone compartments, a water-repellent outer coating, and a luggage-handle sleeve.

VASCHY Water-Resistant Waxed Canvas Laptop Tote

VASCHY water-resistant waxed canvas laptop tote

For an affordable water-resistant laptop bag that’ll fit all the necessities, VASCHY’s Vintage Leather Laptop Tote is made of waxed canvas and real leather. The refined materials plus shock-proof padding and a reinforced bottom make it a sturdy bag that’s a steal—it’s under $50 at the time of writing.

DELSEY Chatelet Soft Air Shoulder Bag

DELSEY chatelet soft air shoulder bag

A smaller laptop bag that would definitely fit in with business class, DELSEY’s Chatelet Soft Air Shoulder Bag looks like a luxe designer purse but packs two electronics sleeves. Its interior measures 16 inches wide, 12 inches tall, and six inches deep. Vegan leather, studded bottom “feet,” and a soft-padded lining make it durable, and it also includes a removable matching pouch for smaller items. It comes with a 10-year warranty.

KELTY Ardent 30L Laptop Backpack

KELTY ardent 30l laptop backpack

A cool and affordable soft-sided laptop bag that comes in several colors, KELTY’s Ardent 30L Backpack can fit a 15-inch laptop in its rear back-panel sleeve—which also has an added secret passport compartment and a plush-lined tablet sleeve. The main compartment is huge, so you can keep clothes or gear separate from your protected valuables, and a smaller front compartment is full of pockets for organizing small accessories like your phone, sunglasses, and medications. This bag easily goes from day hikes to plane rides for super-organized travel.

TETHY Unisex Backpack Diaper Bag

Traveling with kids? TETHY’s Unisex Diaper Backpack suits new parents with its hidden diaper-changing pad and roomy inner organizing pockets designed for bottles, diapers, and wipes. It looks less like a diaper bag and more like the stylish laptop bag it also happens to be. Thanks to the padded tech sleeves, it can fit a 14-inch laptop and an iPad, plus the outer water-resistant nylon and leather trim give it a chic, stylish look.

Osprey Arcane Large Laptop Backpack

Osprey arcane large laptop bag

A large, light daypack that’s a workhorse for planes or commuting to the office, Osprey’s Arcane Large Laptop Backpack has a main compartment sleeve for a 15-inch laptop. Its soft back panel provides plenty of support, and the internal organization will help you keep everything where you can find it.

Lux and Nyx Bella Laptop Bag

If you’re willing to splurge on a travel bag, make it one you can use for everything—and I mean everything: work, gym, travel, and any other packing occasion. Lux and Nyx makes fashionable luxury bags with shoe compartments, laptop sleeves, and comfortable shoulder straps. The Zoe has more than 18 compartments, with space for clothes, a pair of shoes, a water bottle, a laptop, and a tablet. It even has utility straps at the base to secure a yoga mat or tripod.

Fjallraven Kanken

Fjallraven kanken laptop bag

Even if you’ve never heard of Fjallraven, you’ve still likely seen the Swedish outfitters’ on-trend tote backpacks at the airport. The Fjallraven Kanken’s roomy main compartment has a 15-inch laptop sleeve and makes it an ideal day pack, weekender bag, or personal item. SmarterTravel’s Ashley Rossi says, “It’s great for storing a laptop and all your essentials during a short or long flight, and it doubles as a great daypack for walking around a destination.”

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Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Editor’s note: Reviews are based on usefulness, portability, durability, value, and “cool factor.” Some review products are sent to us free of charge and with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions, positive and negative, and will never accept compensation to review a product. If you have any questions or comments concerning our reviews, or would like to suggest a product for review, please email us at editor@smartertravel.com.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Codey Albers contributed to this story.

Categories
Passenger Rights

OP-ED: You’re Entitled to a Refund for Any Canceled Flight, Even During a Pandemic

Editor’s note: On April 3, the DOT of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings issued an Enforcement Notice firmly supporting the federal requirement that airlines issue cash refunds when they cancel flights. The notice affirms that issuing a future credit or voucher does not satisfy the DOT requirement. Failure to comply, says the notice, “could subject the carrier to an enforcement action.” You can read more here.

Airlines like to charge for everything—bags, boarding groups, seats, seat selection. But they rarely get so brazen as to refuse refunds for simple things like a canceled flight, probably because it’s squarely illegal in the United States.

Why, then, has one airline has been denying customers refunds on flights it has canceled amid the global pandemic? The Department of Transportation (DOT) says it is aware of customer complaints that United is offering only airline credits to passengers on flights that have been canceled outright. Multiple U.S. senators are also now calling on airlines to provide refunds.

According to USA Today, United has tried to say it will only provide airline credit, not cash refunds, for canceled domestic flights: “United is not issuing refunds unless the new flight their computer system automatically put you on delays your departure or arrival by more than six hours. If it doesn’t, and you don’t want to travel, you’ll receive a travel credit for the value of the ticket.”

For international flights (almost all of which are now canceled due to a Global Level 4 Health Advisory), “United is effectively delaying any passenger refunds for up to a year” and giving customers a credit that’s good for a year. If they don’t use it within a year of the ticket purchase date, the airline says the customer can then get their money back.

Most other airlines have been amiable—even helpful—in canceling flights and guaranteeing the refunds travelers are, in fact, owed. And they should be: In uncertain times like these, you probably need that money you spent months ago on a flight you’ll now not take. And consumer rights advocates are accordingly admonishing United and other airlines trying this, which also include JetBlue and British Airways.

Here’s how the DOT lays out your rights in a cancellation (emphasis mine):

“If your flight is cancelled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportationeven for non-refundable tickets. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.”

These are trying times for airlines and people alike. But when a billion-dollar company like an airline is skirting solid consumer regulations meant to protect average people, something is awry.

It might come as no surprise that the major offending airline is United, which in the early days of this pandemic overhauled its schedule-change policy (and then backtracked) from allowing two-hour delays to attempting to allow whopping 25-hour changes without refunds.

If you’re questioning whether or not you’re allowed to ask (politely) for a refund when your flight’s status becomes “canceled,” the answer is yes. And anyone who’s told no by an airline should consider filing a complaint with the Department of Transportation here.

Editor’s note: This story contains opinions of the writer and does not reflect those of SmarterTravel or TripAdvisor (our parent company).

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Health & Wellness

5 UV-Light Sanitizing Products That Are Less Likely to Be Sold Out

If you’re out of hand sanitizer, cleaning sprays, and even the household products you can make your own sanitizers with (read: rubbing alcohol), there’s another option to consider: UVC light, a  little-known, relatively new way to reduce the number of germs on surfaces in your home. But if you’ve ever seen those travel-sized disinfecting wands and felt skeptical about their efficacy, you’re not alone. There’s only one type of UV light that’s actually effective when it comes to killing germs.

Does UV light work as a sanitizer?: According to scientists, UVC light is the only kind of light that can reliably kill germs, and is sometimes used in hospitals for sanitizing in tandem with chemical cleaners to further reduce germs, especially ones that are drug-resistant. Note that chemical cleaners are more effective overall than UVC light sterilizers in terms of the percentage of germs they eradicate—UVC sanitizers don’t kill quite as many germs as do chemicals like alcohol. Meanwhile, UVA and UVB light are totally ineffective in killing germs.

Is it safe?: UVC light should be kept away from skin and eyes because it can damage them and any other cells it comes into contact with, which is also how it kills microbes. Many UVC sanitizers have child-safe locks, don’t work when pointed upward/towards the user, or only function to sanitize items in an enclosed space within the product in order to keep the UVC light contained. According to Colombia University’s Center for Radiological Research: “In short, exposure to far-UVC light is safe for people, but potentially lethal for viruses.” You can read more about how to shop for UVC-sanitizing products here and here.

With safety and effectiveness in mind, here are some different types of UVC products to consider if you want to invest in a sanitizer that, unlike wipes and sprays, won’t run out any time soon.

UV-Sanitizing Wands

Sanitizing UV wands are often touted as a travel must-have to spot-clean places like dirty hotel rooms, but they’re also good for use at home, as long as you purchase one that explicitly says it uses UVC rays (not UVA or UVB). Many travel versions of UV-sanitizing wands don’t specify the types of UV rays they use and could be duping you into buying something ineffective. Options that do use UVC rays and are still affordable sell out often; the foldable UV Light Sanitizing Wand was available at the time of publication but does sell out. You can search Amazon for UV-sanitizing wands here—just be sure to independently check the product specifications, which should say that the product uses UVC light.

UV Light Sterilizer Boxes

The safest type of UVC sanitizer is one that allows you to place items inside a closed space where the light will be used, which shields you from any accidental exposure. There are lots of options of this kind out there, from small sterilizers made for baby items like pacifiers, including the UV Light Sanitizer Box, to larger options like the UV Light Sanitizer Bag. Both of these products specify UVC use.

UV-Sanitizing Water Bottles

One of the first ways that UVC rays were used for sanitizing was in water, so it’s no surprise that there are plenty of UV-sanitizing water bottles out there. Amazon recommends the CrazyCap UV Water Purifier Cap, which can double as a surface sterilizer that utilizes UVC. LARQ water bottles are a slightly more expensive, cult-favorite UVC-sanitizing option that are beloved for their functionality and minimalist style.

PhoneSoap

One of the best-known UVC sanitizers was launched on the television show Shark Tank. PhoneSoap safely sanitizes smartphones and other small items like keys, credit cards, and smart watches. It doubles as a universal phone charger, and comes in various sizes so it can clean all phone sizes. The newest and largest PhoneSoap product, HomeSoap, launches soon.

UV-Light Air Purifiers

Far-UVC light has been proven effective on airborne illnesses like the flu, and can accordingly be used in air purifiers and humidifiers. Again, only spring for UVC options, like the Guardian HEPA Filter Air Cleaner.

Stuck at home? Here are some of our favorites for staying healthy and productive at home:

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

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Booking Strategy Frequent Flyer Money

8 Secret Perks Your Credit Card Might Already Have

Most credit card users are in it for the travel points—which is smart. If you frequently spend money on travel (which includes ride shares like Uber) and dine out, getting double or triple points without even traveling mean free money toward flights, hotels, and more. But point-happy travelers who don’t read the fine print of their card agreement (who does?) might not realize just how many free credit card travel benefits their card comes with—and they’re missing out.

Nowadays, issuers provide an array of travel perks that you might not even know you have. From food-delivery credits to luxe lounges, here’s what to look for in your credit card travel benefits.

Free Meals via Take-Out/Delivery

One of the newest perks appearing on credit cards with an annual fee is food-delivery credits. When Chase’s Sapphire Reserve upped its annual fee recently, cardholders gained dining perks including a $60 annual DoorDash credit along with a complimentary DashPass, which is usually $10 per month and nixes fees on all orders. All users have to do to get the free $60 credit is link their card to a DoorDash account and use it to order; DoorDash charges will be reimbursed by Chase within a few days once you’ve confirmed you’re enrolled.

Note: Like many premium cards, Chase Sapphire Reserve has a high ($550) annual fee, but much of that charge ($300) is redeemed automatically on travel expenses as you spend—making it a low-fee card for frequent travelers.

Lounge Access and Meal Credits

One of the best credit card travel benefits available today is one that typically must be opted into: free airport lounge access. One of the most popular credit cards for this perk is Chase’s Sapphire Reserve, which comes with Priority Pass membership only once you log into the card’s benefits portal and activate the membership. Why? Probably because it’s a super in-demand freebie, as evidenced by recent lounge overcrowding that’s caused some credit cards to offer airport meal credits in lieu of lounge access at busier hubs. Still, if you know it’s there, it’s smart to opt in for the free membership and airport restaurant credits. I’ve personally used both perks while traveling and saved lots of money on airport meals as a result.

[st_related]Priority Pass vs. Lounge Pass: Which Is Better for Affordable Airport Lounge Access?[/st_related]

Travel Health Insurance

Considering buying travel accident or health insurance in case you need to see a doctor on a trip abroad? Stop price comparing and check what you might already have for free as a credit card perk. One of the most underrated credit card travel benefits is health insurance coverage that can save you a lot of money if you unexpectedly need medical assistance in another country. Many credit cards also provide up to $500,000 in “accidental death and dismemberment” (ADD) insurance for travel on any common carrier. Cards with travel emergency assistance perks include Chase’s Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve, Citi’s Prestige Card, and an array of American Express cards.

Free Global Entry or TSA PreCheck

Don’t let annual fees, which most premium cards have, scare you away from travel cards. They often make up for the fee in credit card travel benefits. If you’re enrolling in or renewing Global Entry, for example, you can often be reimbursed the $100 enrollment fee as part of annual fee credits. Not interested in Global Entry? TSA PreCheck enrollment or renewal fees also qualify for the reimbursement.

[st_related]How to Get Global Entry or TSA Precheck for Free[/st_related]

Rental Car Coverage/Roadside Assistance

Roadside assistance and/or rental car insurance is included with many credit cards these days—not just travel cards. According to SmarterTravel insurance expert Ed Perkins: “Rental car coverage is by far the most important travel benefit your credit card provides: If you rent with a card offering this benefit and the car is damaged during the time you rent, the card picks up whatever costs you can’t first recover from your regular insurance.”

All that’s required to take advantage of a card’s free rental car coverage is to use the card for the rental agreement and decline the rental company’s (usually outrageously expensive) collision damage waiver (CDW), which can be as high as $30 per day—sometimes much more than the base rental rate.

As for roadside assistance: Visa premium cards, most American Express cards, and many others offer some type of roadside assistance, similar to what you can get from AAA if a car you’re driving runs out of gas, suffers a flat, or experiences a dead battery. But if you’re in a rental car, call the rental company first.

Lost Bag Protection

If you buy an airline, bus, rail, or other ticket with your card and your baggage on that trip is stolen, damaged, or permanently lost, Visa premium cards, most AmEx cards, and quite a few others cover you. Bag protection can also cover costs incurred if your bags are lost and therefore delayed—i.e., if you need to buy some necessities in the interim.

This type of card coverage is typically secondary, meaning that you must first claim dues from the carrier. The card may cap collection at a typical figure of $3,000 or only provide coverage of claim expenses that exceed the carrier’s maximum limit. And payments on most such claims cover only the depreciated value of the items lost or damaged, not the replacement value: Most people would have a tough time coming up with $3,000 worth of value for what’s in their baggage.

[st_related]This Is the Worst Airline for Lost Luggage[/st_related]

Delay and/or TCI Insurance

If your trip is delayed, a few premium cards offer a modest amount of coverage toward the cost of meals, accommodations, and various “essential items.” Coverage kicks in only after a specified time, sometimes as long as 18 hours of delay, and reimbursement may not be available until you can prove you’ve asked for it from your carrier. But if the airline won’t pay out, it’s a good back-up option—and can make a big difference in a nightmarish flight delay.

Some credit cards also provide trip-cancellation/interruption (TCI) benefits, but the pay-out limit tends to be low. Only a few premium cards provide this benefit, including Capital One World MasterCard and several Citi cards.

Entertainment Concierge

A few premium cards provide arrangements with local agencies that fill the function of a ritzy hotel concierge in major cities: They can arrange tickets for sightseeing, local entertainment, tables at famous restaurants, and more—some of which could be sold out or unavailable to other average customers. Note that while the service is “free,” you of course will have to pay for whatever the concierge arranges for you.

Not convinced your card has enough benefits? See The Best Travel Credit Cards.

Looking for Our Favorite Footwear for the Season? Check Out Allbirds

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel and just upgraded her own credit card for better credit card travel benefits. Follow her on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Ed Perkins contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the annual fee for the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. It is now $550, not $450.

Categories
Adventure Travel Experiential Travel Group Travel

8 Hard-to-Plan Dream Trips to Research at Home While You Have the Time

In stressful times like this global pandemic, it’s easy to get caught up in fear, confusion, and the never-ending news cycle. But perhaps the best way to escape it all is to mentally dive into a good vacation. Researching your dream trip of choice is a helpful reminder that the world will go back to normal again—and when it does, you’ll have a decisive plan of action for a trip you’re excited to take. Whether it’s a new type of travel for you (sailing, hiking, train itineraries, or road tripping) or a destination you’re unfamiliar with, now’s the time to tackle all your wildest travel ambitions.

Here are the dream trips we’re researching while we’re stuck at home, and where to look for the most reliable and up-to-date information on each.

Island Hopping Greece’s Far-Flung Islands

aerial view agios sosts zakynthos greece

While Greece’s main hot spots get a break from the overtourism they’ve faced for years, explore the country’s thousands of islands online to find out which groupings are best for your travel style.

There are the easily accessible Ionian Islands of the north (think Corfu and Zakynthos), more remote North Aegean options near Turkey, and, of course, the famous Cyclades: hard-partying Mykonos and picturesque Santorini included. But you also won’t want to miss their smaller siblings either: Folegandros, Milos, Amorgos, and more are among the lesser-known Cycladic gems. There’s simply not enough time to see them all, so why not choose now which ones you want to see later?

Where to look: Visit Greece’s guide to the Greek Islands is the perfect place to start. Here you can download brochures, guides, and maps, and sign up for their newsletter.

An Off-the-Beaten-Path African Safari

zebras botswana okavango delta khwai.

Go beyond the standard South African romp by extending your dream trip into even more untouched areas like Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where you can safari via canoe, or Zambia’s Liuwa Plain, one of the oldest nature reserves on the continent.

Where to look: African Parks is a 16-park nonprofit organization that advises travelers on up-to-date travel information, including travel advisories and which parks are leading in balancing conservation and tourism. You can find information about visiting each park here, and sign up for their good-news newsletter here.

Hiking Jordan Top-to-Bottom

camels Wadi Rum desert Jordan.

Petra is far from the only site to see in Jordan, which recently opened its new 400-mile Jordan Trail to hikers’ delight. If you’re not aiming to tackle the entire route, you can opt instead for mapping out the sections you would like to conquer, like the southernmost part of the route from Petra to the Red Sea’s world-renowned snorkeling and scuba sites.

Where to look: You can virtually explore the Jordan Trail and monitor when its sites will reopen here.

Meeting Penguins on Antarctica

chinstrap penguin antarctica.

Watching nature documentaries at home can certainly make your travel bug act up. And there’s perhaps no wilder adventure than heading to the southernmost continent for untouched beauty and penguins.

Where to look: Read about one SmarterTravel editor’s Antarctic adventures at sea, and bookmark our 12 Amazing Ways to Explore Antarctica for when tour companies heading to the icy continent reopen.

A Grand Wildlife Tour of the Galapagos

darwin's finch galapagos islands.

A warmer wildlife adventure than setting out for the South Pole, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands are an adventure of a lifetime that you’ll need to plan to a tee considering environmental regulations limit access to government-trained tour guides. Species unique to the islands include Galapagos penguins, tortoises, sea lions, rare birds like waved albatross and blue-footed boobies, and more.

Where to look: The Galapagos Conservancy offers travel information like its sustainability restrictions/park rules, where to plan a dream trip, and corporate travel partners that enforce policies in line with the islands’ standards. You can sign up for their newsletter here for updates on all of those topics.

Seeing Japan’s Cherry Blossoms by Bullet Train

cherry blossom japan bullet train.

With Japan’s cherry blossom festivals canceled this year, many travelers vying for this dream trip during peak season start planning up to a year in advance to ensure they’ll get their ideal hotel during what’s usually the busiest time of year for the country’s tourism. The fast and affordable bullet trains, which were recently updated to accommodate the now-postponed Olympics, are the best way to get around the mainland.

Where to look: The Japan Rail Pass website is perhaps the best way to familiarize yourself with Japan’s regions and transportation options, and it provides cherry-blossom-season information here, including information about the typical timing of peak blooms for different regions and major cities.

The Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip

Road Lake Wakatipu Queenstown New Zealand.

Not familiar with New Zealand’s North Island and South Island geography? Most people aren’t aware you can drive both in their entirety if you plan out an appropriate route and spend at least two weeks. That’s a lot of pit stops, hikes, and hotel stays to plan: Check out SmarterTravel’s best places in New Zealand and How to Do New Zealand’s North and South Islands in Two Weeks.

Where else to look: Pure New Zealand provides detailed itineraries and background information on road tripping around the country’s otherworldly landscapes.

The Towers of Pain: Patagonia via Buenos Aires

Patagonia Torres del Paine Three Giant.

Patagonia’s Torres del Paine (or Towers of Paine) National Park is a bucket-list item for hikers, skiers, and just about any outdoor enthusiast. The best way to conquer a trek in 800,000-square-kilometer Patagonia is with a seasoned tour company that can show you the way, but you’ll still need to figure out which season you want to see this spectacular scenery in, how to get there, and if you want to tack on some time in romantic Buenos Aires since most air routes will include a stop there. See our story on planning a trip to Patagonia and check out one SmarterTravel editor’s experience of conquering the challenging paths in winter.

Where to look: The South America Tourism Office has lots of background information and recommended tour providers specific to Patagonia.

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Share Your Virtual Vacation or Travel Inspiration With Us:

Are you itching to travel? So are we … that’s why we started the #GoLater campaign on social media. We want to see which destinations YOU are dreaming of. Head over to our Instagram channel (@smartertravel) to learn more. 

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

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Adventure Travel Booking Strategy Cities Health & Wellness Money Outdoors Senior Travel Solo Travel Travel Technology Travel Trends

Healthcare Abroad: How to Find an English-Speaking Doctor or Clinic

Sweaty, squinting, and red-eyed, I exited the cool waiting room’s automatic sliding glass doors. I got in the DiDi rideshare car outside the international clinic, preemptively thanked the driver, and opened my heavy paper bag of new medications: antibiotic eye drops to use every five hours, saline solution to use every six, antibiotic tablets and painkillers to take every 12, and cough medicine for whenever I felt like I couldn’t breathe. A receipt listed the out-of-pocket prices of my bloodwork appointment plus the medicines: $3,000—which I luckily didn’t have to pay thanks to the travel insurance that covered my unexpected need for healthcare abroad.

Pulling away from the small storefront of the Nanjing international clinic, we idled in traffic about a block away. I stared up at a behemoth building, a black glass skyscraper marked by red neon Chinese symbols that flashed and changed on its glass every several seconds. The parking lot was jam-packed with both cars and people.

“What’s this building?” I asked my local guide, who was accompanying me in the back seat. “A movie theater?”

She looked at me and smiled slightly: “That’s the hospital.” I felt my swollen eyes widen, and redirected them to my bag of medicinal loot.

I don’t recommend getting sick in China (as I did in mid-2019). But if you’re going to come down with bronchitis and a bacterial infection on vacation, somewhere with ample tea and warm hospitality is not a bad place for you to be. I unequivocally do recommend, however, having travel medical insurance—preferably from a company with a user-friendly app you can pre-download on your phone. It’ll afford you the luxury of entering and exiting a clinic to see an English-speaking doctor abroad in a fraction of the time that a 3,000-bed hospital would ever be able to see you.

How to Find the Right Healthcare Abroad

Because I have a medication allergy, I felt it was crucial I saw an English-speaking doctor so I could be confident in the prescription I received. While navigating the many international clinics in the college city of Nanjing, I learned a lot about how to responsibly find covered healthcare abroad. Here’s how to purchase and navigate medical travel insurance, find a good doctor or clinic, and ensure you won’t be stuck with the bill.

[st_related]17 Things Your Travel Insurance Policy Won’t Cover[/st_related]

Plan Ahead

Researching your insurance options and purchasing medical travel insurance coverage for your specific needs is the first step to being able to find healthcare abroad, and there are a number of things to consider. If you’re going to be participating in adventure activities like kayaking, scuba diving, or hiking, make sure you purchase a policy that doesn’t exclude “dangerous activities.” Travel insurance policies with good medical coverage will also include worst-case scenario expenses up to and including emergency medical flights home and repatriation of a body, which would otherwise cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket.

You’ll also want to know the general state of medical services in your destination so you can make an informed decision in an emergency. For example, I knew public hospitals in China often have hours-long wait times, so instead I pounced on an available appointment at a private international clinic that my insurance covered.

If you aren’t familiar with the country you’re visiting, the U.S. State Department’s Consular Information Sheets are a good place to start to see what type of medical services will be available to you once you’re there. Select your country and look for the “Health” section. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has destination-specific health information, and the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) provides free destination-specific health information as well.

Know Your Medications

Knowing the generic/medical names of common medications can be helpful when you’re talking to a doctor about your prescriptions or hunting for over-the-counter remedies in a foreign country. Many doctors abroad speak English, but they might not know what the brand-name medication you take contains since it’s not available to their patients. Keep in mind the following generic medication names in case you need to purchase them from a pharmacy:

  • Advil/Motrin= ibuprofen
  • Aleve= naproxen
  • Tylenol/Excedrin= acetaminophen
  • Bayer, others= aspirin
  • Benadryl= diphenhydramine
  • Dramamine= dimenhydrinate
  • Bonine= meclizine
  • Pepto-Bismol= bismuth subsalicylate
  • Robitussin= dextromethorphan
  • Antacids= calcium carbonate, aluminum hydroxide, or magnesium hydroxide
  • Imodium= loperamide

Choose a High-Tech (and 24-Hour) Medical Insurance Provider

Keep your standards high when it comes to purchasing travel medical insurance—you are paying for it, after all. Straightforward insurance that gets you healthcare abroad doesn’t need to be pricey to come with a high-tech app and 24/7 support: It’s easy to weigh options and seek out one that has both thanks to search-and-compare options like SquareMouth and InsureMyTrip.com. (Also note that, like most private insurance companies in the U.S., Medicare and Medicaid don’t cover healthcare abroad.)

The specific insurance provider you choose will probably depend on your preferences and possibly your home location, but there should be options available that have high-tech features like an app no matter where you are. My coverage for healthcare abroad was with GeoBlue, which offers an app with covered doctor listings by country and fast 24/7 phone support. If you have a credit card that offers travel insurance, read the fine print to make sure it offers the medical support you could need; if it doesn’t, buy your own separately.

[st_related]How to Buy International Medical Insurance, the Other Travel Insurance[/st_related]

Locating the Right Doctor Abroad

The CDC lists some resources that can help you locate a doctor abroad, and states that the nearest embassy or consulate in your destination should also have doctor recommendations. But the only way to see a list of providers in your destination that are covered by your insurance is typically via the medical insurance company’s app or customer service line—which should offer 24/7 contact, in case you’re visiting somewhere with a tricky time difference. International travel clinics are usually named as such, and when in doubt you can call the office to confirm; those with bilingual doctors typically have an automated recording that will prompt you to select a language.

Payment Approval and Proof of Insurance

Approval of funds from your insurance company can be referred to as “direct payment approval” or “direct deposit approval,” and you might need this authorization sent before you even set foot in a doctor’s office. It guarantees that the insurance company will pay the provider directly so you don’t have to. Whether or not you’ll need one varies depending on the destination and type of doctor/clinic you’re visiting, but it was necessary for me in China—so I was happy to have an insurance provider that was readily available to confirm coverage to the clinic I was visiting, especially because it was 2:00 a.m. at home at the time of my appointment.

You’ll probably also need proof of insurance. Keep your insurance card, or at least a digital copy of it, handy in case you need to provide a policy number or contact info to the office you’re visiting. Many clinics require both proof of insurance and an accompanying payment approval before letting you see a doctor. And if direct payment isn’t required or doesn’t occur via your insurance provider for the healthcare you received abroad, you’ll likely need to file a claim with your insurance company as soon as you can—don’t wait too long to file one and risk finding out you’ll be billed.

Know It’s Worth It

Travel insurance can feel like a waste of money if you don’t end up using it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need it in the future. The slight chance that you might need emergency or even routine healthcare abroad makes travel medical insurance a necessity for every international trip. No one can anticipate if and when they’ll have a medical emergency, and not having coverage when you need it can be the difference between going on vacation and letting a doctor’s visit put you into debt.

More from SmarterTravel:

Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in July 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Arts & Culture Frequent Flyer Historical Travel In-Flight Experience Packing Road Trip

10 Engrossing Audiobooks for Travelers

Stuck at home, in a car, or on a long flight? There’s no better way to pass the time than by enjoying a book hands-free. Here are some of the best audiobooks for travelers.

[st_related]9 Podcasts to Listen to on Your Next Trip[/st_related]

True West, Sam Shepard

Heading west on a road trip? Kick off the adventure with True West, a dark comedy and American classic about a sibling rivalry that plays out in the California desert. A screenplay about a film script, True West might be a better listen than it is a read, and it doesn’t hurt that actors Kit Harrington and Johnny Flynn are the narrators.

Length: 87 minutes

What People Are Saying: “Kit Harington (Games of Thrones) and Johnny Flynn (Beast) smolder and burn as sparring brothers in Sam Shepard’s darkly comic 1980 drama. The Cain and Abel conflict is a showdown of sibling rivalry, to be sure, but also bears witness to a legacy of booze-fueled family brawls.”–Amazon

Heads Will Roll, Kate McKinnon

SNL fans and comedy connoisseurs alike will love and laugh at Heads Will Roll by Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne—which is not to be listened to within earshot of kids. The SNL star and her sister steer this 10-episode theatrical audiobook comedy with the help of big stars ranging from narrator Tim Gunn to Meryl Streep.

Length: 4 hours

What People Are Saying: “The series stars McKinnon as a malevolent monarch and her sister, Emily Lynne, as a scatterbrained minion. It appears to poke fun at tired tropes of the evil queen and the hero’s journey while also relishing in their theatrical value. In terms of plot, the story focuses on McKinnon’s character, Queen Mortuana of the Night Realm, who catches wind of a potential peasant uprising and realizes that in order to put down the rebellion, she and her assistant JoJo (played by Lynne) must go on a quest.”—PopDust

The Buried, Peter Hessler

The telling of the most recent Egyptian revolution through the lens of ancient archaeology, The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution is authored by New Yorker writer Peter Hessler, who moved to Cairo with his family just before the Egyptian Arab Spring began in 2011. History, politics, and cultural norms converge through the lives of the locals Hessler meets, and link today’s Egypt with ancient times in a satisfying explainer of Egypt’s rich past and complex present.

Length: 16 hours, 44 minutes

What People Are Saying: “Seen from afar, tectonic political shifts often look as if they consume a society. But have you ever been someplace in the middle of momentous political events and found everyone around you getting on with daily life? Few reporters seem better placed to fathom the complexities of this dynamic—ripples of disquiet permeating routine existence—than Peter Hessler.”—The Wall Street Journal

The Pioneers, David McCullough

History buffs can revel in the years during which the first band of settlers set out from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin to conquer the American Northwest, with David McCullough’s The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. The real-life accounts are drawn from rare diary entries by the subjects of the novel.

Length: 10 hours, 23 minutes

What People Are Saying: “McCullough tells the story through five major characters: Cutler and Putnam; Cutler’s son Ephraim; and two other men, one a carpenter turned architect and the other a physician who became a prominent pioneer in American science. They and their families created a town in a primeval wilderness while coping with such frontier realities as floods, fires, wolves and bears, no roads or bridges, and no guarantees of any sort, all the while negotiating a contentious and sometimes hostile relationship with the native people. Like so many of McCullough’s subjects, they let no obstacle deter or defeat them.”—Amazon 

Life Will Be the Death of Me, Chelsea Handler

The latest memoir by talk-show comedian Chelsea Handler surprises audiences with its rawness that transcends comedy by addressing the state of American politics. Life Will Be the Death of Me … and You Too is Handler’s sixth book.

Length: 5 hours, 25 minutes

What People Are Saying: “You thought you knew Chelsea Handler—and she thought she knew herself—but in her new book, she discovers that true progress lies in the direction we haven’t been.”—Gloria Steinem

Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin

HBO’s hit show might be over, but you can go back to the beginning with Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1. Or choose from the entire series, which are some of the best audiobooks for road trips even if you’re new to the saga—although you will need a lot of time to get through them all.

Length: 33 hours, 46 minutes (Book 1)

What People Are Saying: “There have been many fantasy sagas published in the last half century, but few can boast the scope, depth, and attention to detail of A Song of Fire and Ice.”—Common Sense Media

From Scratch, Tembi Locke

Travelers of all backgrounds will appreciate this romance about cross-cultural boundaries, love at first sight, family, food, and death. From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home also ends with a collection of recipes (included in text form).

Length: 10 hours, 17 minutes

What People Are Saying: “The writing in From Scratch is sublime. Locke allows her readers to revel in the sensory experiences of Sicily. She offers a peek into her deeply satisfying relationship with her daughter, her husband, and their family.”—The Associated Press

The Night Tiger, Yangsze Choo

A book-club favorite of late, The Night Tiger: A Novel follows a hardworking dressmaker whose small Malaysian village encounters a series of puzzling deaths and rumors of men who turn into tigers. It’s a dense but fantastical tale that makes it one of the best audiobooks for road trips spanning many hours.

Length: 14 hours, 8 minutes

What People Are Saying: “Choo narrates this richly complex novel herself, her gorgeous writing delivered in a voice that is deep and precise and lovely, both British and not quite. Her tone and words transport us.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Elizabeth II: Life of a Monarch, Ruth Cowen

Queen Elizabeth’s early private life and public reign still read like a blockbuster movie, whether or not you’re headed for the U.K. anytime soon. Elizabeth II: Life of a Monarch is written by British journalist Ruth Cowen and narrated by respected British royal correspondent Jennie Bond.

Length: 3 hours, 47 minutes

What People Are Saying: “Wife, mother and head of state, who is the real Elizabeth? What do the headlines hide? How close to reality are the television interpretations? … Admired by many, she has reigned through a period of unprecedented change, steering the monarchy through the end of an empire, public scandals and private losses.”—Goodreads

Before She Knew Him, Peter Swanson

A tale of paranoia and unsolved murder in a suburb of Boston,  Before She Knew Him: A Novel is a complex crime novel that will keep you guessing as to what’s reality and what’s not.

Length: 10 hours, 15 minutes

What People Are Saying: Before She Knew Him is a wicked thriller that does not disappoint. Peter Swanson has written another gem that pulls the reader in and never lets go, even as the story comes to a close. This is a book that will keep you up at night and haunt your thoughts. A fun, chilling read.”—Manhattan Book Review

More from SmarterTravel:

SmarterTravel Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram at @shanmcmahon.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Categories
Adventure Travel Outdoors

11 Hidden Natural Wonders in the United States

They don’t call it America the Beautiful for nothing. The most beautiful places in America include some little-known yet bucket-list-worthy natural wonders across the U.S. and its territories. These 11 lesser-known spots include lush forests, tropical islands, and towering mountains—and are sure to inspire your travels.

[st_related]The 10 Best U.S. Cities to Visit This Year[/st_related]

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

hikers on great sand dune national park.

You probably already know about otherwordly American national park landscapes like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone’s geysers, but what about sand mountains akin to the ones on Mars? The giant desert peaks of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve include Star Dune, which stands 750 feet tall. Located in Colorado, Great Sand Dune is a hiking or horseback-riding challenge that’s also home to kid-friendly offerings like sand boarding and Medano Creek’s swimming hole.

Vieques, Puerto Rico

vieques beach puerto rico.

Tropical American beauty in the Caribbean is on full display in Vieques, a small island in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Accessible via plane from San Juan on the mainland, Vieques is a well-preserved island with few waterfront hotels where you can hike to hidden beaches like Vieques National Wildlife Refuge’s Pata Prieta. The island is also home to friendly wild horses that roam protected areas and sometimes wander into more tourist-frequented spots. Vieques also has one of the world’s few bioluminescent bays, Mosquito Bay.

[st_related]10 Gorgeous Beaches You’ve Probably Never Heard Of[/st_related]

Bar Harbor, Maine

bass harbor lighthouse maine.

Whether you’re more at home in the 47,000-acre Acadia National Park or its cozy coastal town of Bar Harbor, Acadia’s signature New England beauty combines evergreen-capped mountains with sandy beaches and rocky coastlines. Its peaks include the highest on the East Coast, Cadillac Mountain. If you’re more of a beachgoer than a hiker, though, there’s plenty to choose from as well, including Jordan Pond and Sand Beach Park.

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Devil’s Bridge Trailhead, Arizona

devils bridge angle arizona

Arizona’s Grand Canyon aside, one of the most beautiful places in America is the adrenaline-spiking hike in Sedona that includes the natural wonder of Devil’s Bridge. SmarterTravel’s Ashley Rossi says of the precarious spot and its accompanying hike: “Devil’s Bridge is a scenic, intermediate loop with an optional but daring bridge cross. You can also combine it with the Chuck Wagon Trail for a slightly longer hike.”

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Napali Coast, Kauai

napali coast kauai.

Hawaii is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in America thanks to its unique topography and isolation in the Pacific. But one stretch of island in particular stands out: Kauai’s Napali Coast.

“Unlike some other Hawaiian islands, you can’t circumnavigate Kauai by car. You’ll run out of road in the northwestern corner of the island, where steep, jagged green cliffs plunge precipitously into the sea,” SmarterTravel’s Sarah Schlichter says. “This is the famed Napali Coast (na pali means ‘high cliffs’ in Hawaiian). You can catch a glimpse of the cliffs from viewpoints in Kokee State Park, or take the strenuous, 11-mile Kalalau Trail into the heart of the wilderness park, with incredible views of beaches, waterfalls, and fluted cliffs.”

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Lost River Cave, Kentucky

lost river cave entrance kentucky.

You’ve probably heard of Mammoth Cave National Park, the largest underground cave system in the world, but what about Lost River Cave, also in Kentucky? An underground river in Bowling Green, the Lost River Caves are a natural wonder with intriguing history: The cave is where fugitive Jesse James hid out on his run from the law, and are believed to have also functioned as shelter to Native American tribes.

“You’ve got the choice to explore the cave by boat tour, kayak, or—if you’re willing to get down and dirty— a cave crawl, but above ground there’s still plenty to see in the 60-acre park filled with walking trails, campgrounds, and nature-focused activities for the kids,” says SmarterTravel’s Jamie Ditaranto. “No trip to Bowling Green can be considered complete without a trip to this remarkable place, which is not only a natural wonder, but a cornerstone of the community and a monument to its history.”

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The Florida Barrier Reef

woman snorkeling in keys coral reef florida

The only living coral barrier reef in the Continental United States is Florida’s, which stretches from the Florida Keys to the Marquesa Keys, making it the third-largest coral barrier reef system in the world. But it’s a natural wonder in danger: Florida Keys officials recently banned non-biodegradable sunscreens in an effort to save the reef from damage caused by both climate change and toxic chemicals in our oceans.

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Jackson Hole, Wyoming

jackson hole valley tetons.

Yellowstone-adjacent Jackson Hole, known for its cowboy landscapes and snowy peaks, is one of the most beautiful places in the U.S. The forest-nestled valley is marked by Grand Teton National Park’s mountains, massive elk herds of the 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge, and rushing whitewater rapids on the Snake River that are perfect for rafting. In winter, Jackson Hole is also a favorite for skiing dramatic peaks like Corbet’s Couloir, one of the world’s most famous (and dangerous) ski runs.

Multnomah Falls, Oregon

multnomah falls bridge oregon

A list of the most beautiful places in America has to include the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area’s Multnomah Falls. Tourists flock to the forest-nestled Benson Footbridge halfway up the misty falls to get close to the rushing water. Heading to the gorge early and in the rain is best, because it means you’ll get the perpetually crowded Multnomah Falls almost entirely to yourself. Pedal Bike Tours Portland offers easy morning and early-afternoon scenic tour options from downtown Portland.

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Denali National Park, Alaska

caribou denali national park alaska

A favorite among National Parks Service rangers, Denali National Park is home to North America’s tallest peak. Its six million acres of Alaskan wilderness include tundra, forest, and glaciers. The park is as visited for its sprawling vistas as it is for its abundant Alaskan wildlife, from moose and grizzly bears to sheep, caribou, and 165 species of birds.

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National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa

pink cauliflower coral national marine foundation american samoa

Don’t forget Samoa, a Pacific U.S. territory that’s home to a wealth of natural wonders ranging from volcanic peaks to aqua-blue swimming holes. American Samoa is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in America, and stretches over five islands and two atolls, which are accessible without a passport if you fly direct to the capital of Pago Pago. Surround yourself with natural beauty on rainforest hikes, humpback whale watching cruises, and coral reef snorkeling at the National Marine Sanctuary via Fagatele Bay.

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What to Wear on Your Next Adventure

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Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Categories
Health & Wellness Packing Security Travel Technology

9 Travel Products That Can Relieve Stress on Vacation and Every Day

Whether you’re traveling or staying home, there are many utilitarian items that can help you keep track of your stuff, monitor your home, and stay in-the-know when you’re focused on other things. Put stress at bay with these anxiety-reducing travel products that can help you relax both on a trip and at home, secure in the knowledge that everything’s just fine.

A Fitbit

(Photo: Amazon)

It’s easy to fall behind on healthy habits like exercising, but it’s just as easy to squeeze some walking or other healthy activities when you’re told to. If you’re looking to stay on top of your activity time or even track your sleep stats on a daily basis, a Fitbit and its accompanying app will help you do just that.

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Nest Home Monitoring

(Photo: Nest)

Forget assigning a friend to check on the house for you while you’re away, or ignoring an unexpected doorbell ring when you’re home. Whether you want to see who’s at the door on-demand or get notified only if something goes wrong while you’re gone, Nest home-monitoring accessories can be tailored to your needs. Install security cameras inside or out, opt for a smart thermostat, or upgrade your smoke alarms—all of which you can access on your phone through the Nest app.

Natural Anxiety Relief

If you’re unable to sleep from stress, whether on the plane or at home, consider a natural stress relief supplement like herbal remedies: Valerian root is my personal go-to for a natural release. But be sure to talk to your doctor about taking any supplements to ensure they won’t interact with other medicines you’re taking.

Luggage Locks

(Photo: Amazon)

You never know when a small luggage lock might come in handy—whether you’re leaving your bags at hotel reception or renting a locker in another public place. Depending on your needs, keep a durable combination lock at home in your luggage just in case (you don’t want to be worrying about losing a key). This small heart-shaped version is TSA-approved for flights and can double for a locker in a pinch, or go for a classic combination padlock if you depend on gym or storage lockers.

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Item Trackers

tile key finder

Don’t fret about where your phone is or whether or not you lost your keys ever again. Trackers like keychain-sized Tile have become an affordable accessory that allow you to see via your phone where your tracked items are at all times. Tile comes in both keychain and card-sized trackers that fit on your wallet and kets,

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Travel Insurance

You probably forego travel insurance most of the time, but during uncertain times like a pandemic it’s worth purchasing it any time you book a trip in an effort to avoid missing out on a refund or rebooking. If you have to cancel your plans and the airline isn’t canceling flights, cancel for any reason insurance is your best bet. Shop through a provider that will help you find the right policy, like Allianz Global Assistance.

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Beach Safes

(Photo: Amazon)

Some beaches might have you worried about leaving your valuables on the sand unsupervised. Consider SAFEGO’s portable beach safe, or for something lighter and more discrete, this purse-sized alternative from Master Lock.

A Back-up Phone Charger

(Photo: PowerCord)

Stash a spare charging bank in your purse so you can plug in on the go if you need to. MyCharge PowerCord even fits on your keychain, so you’ll never have to worry about packing extra battery power.

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A Dual-Use Charger/Scale

(Photo: Amazon)

Winging it as to whether or not the airline will let your carry-on past the check-in scale without a hefty fee is now a thing of the past thanks to tiny luggage scales that can also be a back-up power bank day-to-day. Oaxis’ Air Scale doubles as a phone charger and weighs only 5.5 oz. When it’s not charging your device, use it to lift your bag and get an instant digital reading of the suitcase’s weight.

More from SmarterTravel:

SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Prices are subject to change.

Categories
Adventure Travel Booking Strategy

What to Do If You’re Caught in an Emergency Situation Abroad

It’s probably crossed your mind at least once when planning a trip: What happens if you fall victim to life-threatening circumstances while you’re in another country? Tragedies like pandemics, wildfires, and terror attacks increasingly seen in the news are a harrowing reminder. And even in the safest destinations an emergency abroad can range from a hurricane to a revolution, catching travelers in the middle with nowhere to go.

If you happen to be in a far-off destination during an emergency, it’s important to have the knowledge and resources you need to get out of danger. Here’s what you need to know.

What to Do in an Emergency Abroad

Here’s how you can prepare for, respond to, and possibly prevent the consequences of events like these ones from affecting you while traveling.

Before You Go, Stay Informed via Travel Alerts

It’s unlikely that tourists know they’re putting themselves in danger whenever they’re caught in an emergency abroad. But, it can sometimes be avoided if you keep up on current events and know areas to avoid when you’re visiting other countries, especially during times of unrest, or during a natural disaster or global pandemic. For instance, if you’re up to date on the broader areas being affected by a global event, whether it be a raging wildfire that’s spreading slowly (like Australia’s in early 2020) or global health crisis that has new cases on new continents every day, staying on top of the news is the difference between being on top of a possible refund or flight change and being caught in a danger zone.

And even once you’ve arrived you should stay on top of the news. A common example: Visiting a famous public square seems like a harmless itinerary item until it becomes the chosen spot for an anti-government rally. I personally experienced this in Athens, Greece, when protests broke out at parliament-adjacent Syntagma Square at the exact time I was at the main train station there to catch a train to the airport. Suddenly, police in riot gear were descending on the station and closing the station gates; the square was blocked off from traffic and no one could get a taxi or train out. Luckily I was visiting family and therefore had seasoned locals just a phone call away to help me get to the airport. But I might have avoided Syntagma, and a possible emergency, if I’d been plugged into the State Department’s STEP alerts or a private travel insurance app’s alerts.

Bottom line: Do your research before traveling, and keep up with the news while you’re there via push notifications on your phone. Since that incident in Greece, I’ve used the GeoBlue app (my travel insurance provider’s) for emergency notifications on-the-go: Alerts about emergencies in my specific location, ranging from extreme weather to health crises to bridge collapses, stream through my phone in real-time when I’m traveling. The Department of State also stays in contact with U.S. citizens traveling abroad about crises ranging from strikes to natural disasters and attacks, and if needed they can provide departure or emergency-evacuation assistance to American citizens. In order to receive these free alerts, sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, and be sure to provide a phone number or email address you know you’ll have access to while you’re traveling.

Have Travel Insurance

If you do experience an emergency situation abroad that affects you financially and/or physically, however, (read: canceled reservations, hospital bills, emergency medical evacuation) you’ll definitely want to have insurance coverage that can help you out both during and after the event. An under-utilized travel resource, travel insurance could end up saving you thousands—even hundreds of thousands— of dollars.

Policies vary in cost and coverage, but some packages cost as little as a few dollars per day. Depending on the coverage you purchase, plans can cover everything from a stolen laptop or emergency hotel cancellation to medical care (or evacuation) and accidental death insurance. Be sure to get all the specifics of the policy before you buy so you know you’ll be covered if the worst happens, and choose a provider that’s high-tech and provides 24/7 assistance.

Bottom line: It might seem like a waste of money if nothing occurs, but it’s better to be safe than sorry—no one ever expects a travel emergency to happen to them, and having to pay medical or evacuation bills abroad out-of-pocket can bankrupt you.

Know Who to Call

Look into emergency phone numbers and the embassy’s contact information before you leave on your trip. Keep them both saved in your phone, and know how to ask for help and give your location in the native language. If you don’t know the local emergency phone number or basic emergency phrases, you could end up playing phone tag during a life-and-death crisis.

Use SmarterTravel’s guide to emergency numbers around the world to find your destination’s emergency number and save it in your phone (or simply memorize it) before departure. If you do have the misfortune of needing to use emergency services while traveling, the U.S. Department of State also might be able to help you with evacuation assistance or other legal matters. Keep the closest U.S. embassy’s contact information in your phone as well, in case you need to ask U.S. authorities for help or update them on your status.

Bottom line: It’s crucial to know the local 911-equivalent to be able to contact authorities immediately should you find yourself in a life-threatening situation. Once the situation is diffused, notify your embassy of the incident and of your status; they might have further information you’ll need.

Call on Travel Providers for Non-Emergency Help

If you have a chance to avoid or get out of the path of danger, know that your travel providers can and should help you—but they might need to be asked, as they too are probably dealing with the crisis. Airlines and hotels might not seem like a big source of help in everyday life, let alone in an emergency, but asking for what you need could mean the difference between ending up in a life-threatening situation and avoiding one altogether. Meaning: If an airline can cancel or change your existing ticket to a high-risk area, they should; but you might need to ask them to do it. If a hotel or cruise company can change your booking or provide alternate lodging in an emergency, they should; but, again, you might need to ask them to do it.

Bottom line: Don’t wait for a call or email about an opportunity to change plans in the face of a travel emergency. Be proactive and ask as soon as news of one makes you think you might need help. Sometimes it’s on the consumer to hold companies accountable, and it’s important to do so.

Our Top Products for Staying Safe and Healthy while Traveling:

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

More from SmarterTravel:

A former news reporter, SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter @shanmcmahon_.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.