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11 Important Rideshare Safety Tips for Travelers

If you use Uber, Lyft, or other rideshare services while traveling in new places, there are a few specific safety tips you should keep in mind to avoid dangerous situations. Uber lists some of these on its website under Rider Safety Tips, but the list is incomplete. Here’s what you need to do before, during, and even after your ride to ensure rideshare safety for you and others.

Rideshare Safety Tips for Travelers

Make these 11 rideshare safety tips part of your routine, whether you’re traveling around your hometown or in a new and unfamiliar destination.

Share Your Trip

When traveling alone, especially at night, always share your trip with others. It’s the easiest and quickest way to let someone track your whereabouts in case something happens during your ride. The person you share your trip with will get a notification to their phone and be able to follow along via GPS. To do so, hit the “Share trip status” option with Uber and “Share ride details” with Lyft.

Give Feedback

This is an often overlooked part of rideshare safety, but an important step to take once your ride is complete. Post-trip, make sure to rate your driver and leave helpful feedback so you can keep good drivers on the road and bad ones off.

Keep Your Personal Info Confidential

There’s no harm in exchanging pleasantries with your driver, but avoid giving him or her any personal information, like how long you’re traveling for, where you live, your phone number, or any other contact information.

Request Your Ride While Inside

If you can, request your ride while indoors to avoid lingering outside too long with your phone out, which may attract thieves or pickpockets.

Confirm Your Driver and Car Before Getting In

There are some reported cases of scammers posing as rideshare drivers, so always confirm the license plate and name of your driver before getting in, and check their appearance against the photo in the app. And, if you’re getting picked up in a popular area, like an airport, this will also avoid accidentally taking someone else’s ride. 

Pro tip: Always ask a driver for the name of the passenger before you get in the car instead of saying your name first. This way, you can be 100 percent sure that person is your driver.

Wear Your Seatbelt

Just because you’re in someone else’s car or riding in the back seat doesn’t mean you’re at less of a risk of being in an accident. Always buckle up—drivers appreciate it. Under Uber’s description of “Your Rating” you’ll find that wearing your seatbelt is listed as an item that helps your passenger rating. 

Sit in the Back Seat

If you’re traveling alone, always choose the back seat. According to Dave Sutton, spokesperson for Who’s Driving You?, a public safety campaign from the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association that promotes for-hire vehicle safety, “Many of the incidents that we’ve seen … have happened to passengers riding up front.”

Check Your Driver’s Rating

Both Uber and Lyft allow passengers to rate drivers on a scale of one to five Always double-check that your driver has prior experience and a rating as close to 5.0 as possible (over 4.8 is generally pretty good). Uber and Lyft may deactivate drivers whose ratings fall below a certain standard.

Never Pay Cash

A driver should never ask you to pay cash for your ride. Both Uber and Lyft give you an option to tip through the app after your trip, so there’s no need to have your wallet out during a rideshare.

Know Your Surroundings

If you’re in an unfamiliar city or area, make sure to track your route on your own maps app to ensure the driver is following the correct route. If you’re getting picked up from the airport, be sure to follow the prompted instructions when you open the rideshare app.

This also goes for the neighborhood and time of day you’re requesting a ride. Be smart and aware of open businesses around you and avoid calling rideshares alone late at night. If you’re getting picked up from a bar or restaurant, pay extra attention to these tips.

Call for Help

Both Uber and Lyft have emergency buttons that let you call 911 directly from the app if something goes wrong. The apps will display your current whereabouts so you can share them with the dispatcher during your call.

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

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Flight Price Trackers: 5 Sites That Will Find the Cheapest Airfare for You

Waiting for a really good airfare deal for a specific destination you know you’d like to visit? Your best bet is to subscribe to alerts from a flight price tracker that will tell you when a fare drops or when an especially good deal appears. These types of airfare alerts are not the same as the many general “deal” bulletins you can receive. Instead, they’re keyed to specific travel dates, air routes, and sometimes even airlines—a kind of “set it and forget” for travelers who don’t want to go hunting for the cheapest airfare.

The 5 Best Flight-Price Trackers

Several options generally rise to the top of most evaluations. Here are the top five, in no particular order, plus what makes each one stand out, followed up by some broader flight-tracking options:

KAYAK (part of the Booking.com empire) is a robust flight price tracker. You can tailor the tracking filters as tightly as you want: by destination, class of service, number of stops, and more. As with many online search systems, it does not include Southwest in its fare searches. KAYAK can also track prices of hotels. Both are possible by selecting the “Price Alerts” switch on the left side of the results page once you’ve searched for your specific dates.

Skyscanner, a London-based metasearch system, operates in much the same way as KAYAK. The “Get Price Alerts” button on the search results page enters your trip(s) into the system, and you can manage your account for details. As with KAYAK, this flight price tracker doesn’t include Southwest fares. And although it can search hotels, it does not offer a tracking function for them. Skyscanner’s “Get Price Alerts” option on the left side of the results page allows you to choose from email, Facebook, and Google to easily create an alerts account and start getting emails—all you have to do is enter an email address for them to be forwarded to.

Hopper is a mobile app for both iOS and Android phones. (Note: Hipmunk, often previously cited as one of the outstanding search system with a tracker function and a competitor for Hopper, recently went out of business.)

Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site, distinguishes itself from the others by including Southwest in its airfare searches. That’s because it uses a combination of online search and searches by real people—airfare analysts—to dig out the best deals. Otherwise, it’s functionally similar to the others, and it also covers hotels as well as airfares.

Yapta, owned by independent software company Coupa, alerts users about price drops on airfare or hotel bookings that could get you a partial refund. It’s “powered by Skyscanner” (so shares most Skyscanner features) and its high ratings are based, in part, on the ability to notify travelers of refunds they might be due following fare cuts. But that’s of more useful to business travelers on flexible tickets than to leisure travelers on nonrefundable ones. (Unlike Skyscanner, it doesn’t track or even list hotels.)

Lastly: Not a website so much as a broader platform built into the internet giant Google, Google Flights provides an outstanding range of choices for tracking flight prices. For any trip of interest you can enter an origin/destination, travel dates, how many tickets you want, class of service, plus screening for the number of stops and other variables to track as many individual flights as you want. notifies you if the fare goes below the value when you first entered the search. It covers most airlines except for Southwest, which does not provide its fares to any metasearch systems. It notifies you by email on as many specific searches as you set it to. Google Flights does not include hotels. As an added bonus, Google Flights will also tell you the cheapest time to fly to a given destination, or the cheapest place to fly in a given time period, if you’re unsure of where and/or when to travel.

For premium fares (premium economy, business, and first class) you can use any ITA Matrix-based sites, which cover all fare classes. Those who want more detailed information on first- and business-class deals, however, can subscribe to several paid sources like First Class Flyer and Notiflyer, starting at $99 per year. Read more about where to find deals on premium airfare here.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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What Fifth Freedom Flights Are, and How They Could Save You Money


If you’ve never heard the term ‘fifth freedom flights,’ you might be missing out on a lucrative way to snag a deal or use your frequent flyer miles. But to explain why, we have to start from the early days of airline regulation:

Back in 1944, airlines and governments from around the world got together in Chicago and designated a series of five official “freedoms of the air,” including that states have control over their own air space and ground landings. The fifth freedom, however, is an airline’s “right to fly between two foreign countries on a flight originating or ending in one’s own country.”

One example of a fifth freedom flight, according to SmarterTravel’s sister site Airfarewatchdog, is: “Singapore Airlines operates a flight from Houston (IAH) to Singapore (SIN) that heads eastward with a brief stop in Manchester, UK (MAN). With fifth freedom rights, a passenger can fly only the Houston to Manchester segment of that flight with no need to travel onward to Singapore.”

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These rights are not automatic: They’re negotiated between governments. And coupled with the third and fourth freedoms—flying between an airline’s home country and a different country—negotiated fifth freedom flights can benefit both airlines and travelers in a few ways:

Airline Benefits of Fifth Freedom Flights

On some very long flights, airlines make midpoint stops to refuel, maybe change crews and, often, to serve travelers headed to/from the midpoint stop: In the above example that’s Manchester, U.K. Fifth freedom rights allow an airline to gain extra revenue by selling fifth-freedom tickets from the midpoint to the final destination.

Example: On its Auckland-London flights via Los Angeles, Air New Zealand sells fifth-freedom tickets from Los Angeles to London along with its third-freedom tickets from Auckland to Los Angeles and London.

On other flights, traffic might be insufficient to support nonstop flights from an airline’s home base to a single distant city—but sufficient to support service to two cities by flying nonstop to one point and then a short connecting flight onward to a second, more distant city. Which then justifies selling fifth-freedom tickets between those two distant points.

Example: KLM sells fifth-freedom Buenos Aires-Santiago tickets on its flights running from Amsterdam to Buenos Aires to Santiago.

Traveler Benefits of Fifth Freedom Flights

Here’s why that all matters: Frequent flyer seats are often easier to come by on fifth-freedom flights than on local lines. Conversely, fares on fifth-freedom flights are sometimes (but not always) lower than local-line fares, which you might be more loyal to.

Here are some things to remember when checking for an advantageous fifth freedom flight to use your miles on or snag a deal:

In a few cases, a fifth-freedom flight is the only nonstop between two distant cities. See our original example: Houston to Manchester, England, on Singapore Airlines. In that case, you’re less likely to find a deal.

In other cases, a long-haul international flight may operate a short connecting flight with a wide-body plane, while local airlines use only smaller 737s and 320s. This difference is important mainly to travelers in business class, where long-haul planes typically have roomy, lie-flat seats while competitive single-aisle planes have only standard economy with a blocked middle seat.

Example: Emirates Airlines flies large Airbus A380s between Sydney and Christchurch, N.Z.

Search engines typically list fifth-freedom flights along with third-freedom flights, but there’s no way to identify a flight as fifth-freedom unless you know the airlines’ routes.

Are Fifth Freedom Flights Going Extinct?

Here’s a complete list of fifth freedom flights operating to/from the U.S. courtesy of RewardExpert.com. Overall, in the long run, the availability of fifth-freedom flights is a moving target. As long-haul planes gain additional range, tech-stop flights are disappearing.

Example: Air New Zealand will eliminate the Los Angeles stop on its Auckland-London flights later this year, and last year Cathay Pacific eliminated a Vancouver, B.C., stop on a New York-Hong Kong flight. As smaller planes stretch their range, separate nonstops are likely to replace multistep long-haul flights, and local airlines will start flying nonstops where only fifth-freedom flights operate now.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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14 Things a Hotel Concierge Can Do for You (And 6 Things They Can’t)


Few travelers think to contact the hotel concierge for much more than directions or restaurant recommendations—but if you don’t, you’re missing out on a wealth of local expertise. A good hotel concierge has impressive powers and can assist with almost any travel problem you might face, so you shouldn’t be afraid to take advantage.[st_content_ad]

That said, a concierge is not a magician. Below are 14 things your hotel concierge can do for you, six more they can’t, and four tips for maximizing your moments at the hotel lobby.

What a Hotel Concierge Can Do for You

Save You Money

The concierge can tell you how to get to the airport for less, where to find nearby happy hours, what the best free sights and activities are, and how much is a fair price for a taxi.

Recommend Fitness Facilities

If your hotel doesn’t have a gym or lacks the equipment you want, the concierge can usually point you to an affiliated hotel with better facilities, recommend a good running trail, or give you a list of nearby fitness centers that offer daily or weekly passes.

Get You a Ride When There Seems to Be None Available

If it is rush hour, raining, or really late, finding a taxi or Uber ride can be tough. The concierge can make this happen with a phone call in many cases. This can even work if you’re not staying at the hotel in question. I once saw a friend walk into the lobby of a New York hotel and offer the concierge a tip; within seconds, we had a ride.

Get Tickets for You

Many concierges are careful to say they can’t get tickets for sold-out shows, but the truth is they sometimes can. They may have relationships with brokers, or know season ticket holders who may not be using their seats, or even have tickets themselves; Michael Fazio, author of Concierge Confidential, started to purchase tickets to certain shows that he would then sell to guests, usually at a markup that matched the secondary market.

Keep You Safe

A concierge can offer advice on whether a neighborhood, park, or activity is safe to visit, and what you can do instead if your idea is iffy.

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Help You Celebrate

Are you proposing to your partner or celebrating a landmark birthday? Your hotel concierge can help with anything from filling your hotel room with flowers and balloons to organizing a rooftop proposal, complete with a photographer to document the occasion.

Help You Do Your Job

A concierge can assist with all kinds of work-related tasks, such as getting materials to a printer, setting up a courier service, mailing packages, and setting up a meeting space.

Help You Look Good

A concierge can get you an appointment with a barber or hairdresser, get clothes pressed, and more.

Fix Sticky Travel Problems

A concierge can help you find an expeditor or make an embassy appointment if your passport is stolen, or facilitate repairs if your smartphone goes on the fritz. They can also accept overnight mail or late-arriving luggage.

Get You a Table

Restaurants will often find a way to fit in customers who are recommended by their preferred concierge contacts. If the restaurant is truly full, the concierge can often get you to the front of a waiting list.

Recommend Local Service Folks

Need a babysitter, an auto repair shop, or a dog walker? Your concierge can help.

Create a Custom Itinerary

If you have a bunch of stuff you definitely want to do but are uncertain how to make it all fit together, the concierge can take your list of attractions and put together a coherent and achievable plan. He or she can also help you avoid pitfalls such as road construction or closed subway stations.

Help with Special Needs

If you are disabled, aren’t feeling well, or have other special needs, a hotel concierge can offer considerable assistance—like calling wheelchair-accessible taxis, finding English-speaking doctors, and recommending restaurants that can accommodate certain food allergies.

Provide Assistance Before You Arrive

The concierge can be a resource not just once you’re at the hotel but beforehand as well. For instance, he or she could help you plan out your first day, including a restaurant reservation for dinner.

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What Your Hotel Concierge Can’t Do for You

Gossip

Discretion is an integral part of a concierge’s job, so they tend not to talk about other guests, including which celebrities might be staying in the hotel.

Illegal or Immoral Activities

You shouldn’t expose a concierge to risk by asking him or her to help with illegal—or dubiously legal—activities such as obtaining drugs, forging signatures, finding “companions,” or the like.

Babysit

A concierge can help you find someone else to look after your child, but he or she can’t actually do the babysitting while on duty.

Float You a Loan

They’ll help you with money concerns, but concierges are not banks; don’t ask them to dig into their pockets for you.

Sell Stuff for You

Concierges are also not your personal eBay or Craigslist; they can’t sell tickets you no longer need or items you don’t want to take home. However, he or she may be able to recommend a place where you can do the sale yourself.

Book Tickets to Sold-Out Shows

Truly sold-out shows tend to be just that; however, you can ask if the concierge has any ideas or contacts to help get you tickets, and he or she might have a strategy for you. If there is truly no way to get certain tickets, the concierge will tell you so.

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Tips for Using a Hotel Concierge

Don’t Be Shy

You might feel as though the concierge is only there for the folks in the penthouse suite, but this isn’t the case; he or she is there to help all guests, so feel free to ask.

Give Them Some Time

Concierges can often pull off difficult tasks, but to do so on very short notice is tricky, and it distracts them from helping other guests. Give the concierge some notice if you need something beyond simple advice.

Present the Concierge’s Card

When a concierge sends you to a restaurant or other establishment, it is often his or her name, not yours, that is the attraction for the proprietor. So if a concierge asks you to show his or her card, do it; these relationships are what makes concierges able to help you now and in the future.

Not All Concierges Are the Same

Concierges at the very best (and most expensive) hotels are notorious for pulling off near-miracles; those at less prestigious establishments typically don’t have the same pull.

Traveling? Get a Carry-On That Does More

The Bigger Carry-On from Away

3 words: lightweight, durable, & multi-functional. The Carry-On from Away makes traveling that much easier, especially with its removable, TSA-approved battery for your electronics.

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Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a biweekly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated with the latest information.

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The Hotel Brand You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, But Should


The Cambria Hotels franchise, owned by Choice Hotels, is a mainstream hotel brand, yet manages to seem boutique and personal while maintaining affordable room rates.

Cambria Hotels in 2020 and Beyond

My first introduction to Cambria Hotels was during a quick stay near LAX at the El Segundo property. And while I didn’t expect much from an airport hotel, I was impressed by the large room sizes and bathrooms, friendly and communal lobby, and my favorite feature, a bathroom mirror with Bluetooth capabilities.

Soon after that stay, Cambria announced a new location in Southie, my Boston neighborhood, and I began to do more research on this affordable boutique hotel chain. Turns out there are over 50 Cambria Hotels open across the U.S. in downtown hot spots like Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville, and even up-and-coming destinations like Omaha and Asheville.

The hotel chain doesn’t sacrifice location or amenities. Sometimes you’ll find more affordable hotels in less-desirable locations, but I can personally attest that the location of both the LAX and Boston hotels are convenient for travelers (leisure and business). Bonus: There’s an awesome rooftop at the Boston property.

In 2017, the hotel chain opened up 10 new hotels, followed by six in 2018, and 11 in 2019. In 2020, the brand is slated for at least 13 new openings in locations like Sonoma, Napa, Ocean City, Savannah, Detroit, Ft. Lauderdale, Louisville, and more.

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I asked Janis Cannon, Senior Vice President, Upscale Brands, Choice Hotels about the explosive Cambria expansion, her favorite properties, and what’s to come in the years ahead:

Q&A with Janis Cannon

SmarterTravel: What property are you most excited about from 2019 and 2020 opening (that you can share)?

Janis Cannon: Choosing a favorite property is like choosing a favorite child–each property shares the same DNA (our brand hallmarks), which guests appreciate and expect, but has a unique personality and appearance reflective of the surrounding community.

For example, the Cambria Hotel in Anaheim is in sunny California near the main gates of Disneyland and features a 30,000 square foot waterpark, while our Boston Downtown “Southie” location perfectly bridges that area’s industrial past with the city’s academic spirit with quotes from great New England writers in each guestroom. Additionally, our hotel in downtown Houston, which opened earlier this year, and the Cambria in downtown Detroit slated to open next year, are adaptive-reuse projects that protect and pay homage to their history, while meeting the needs of today’s design-literate, modern traveler. So, you’ll see that no two Cambria hotels are alike and our guests will always be able to get a taste of the city they’re visiting without ever having to leave the hotel.

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ST: What do you and your team look for when picking new locations or properties?  

JC: One of the primary things we do is study the market to understand demand drivers such travel trends, local attractions, what corporate business is in the market, and proximity to airports, and Convention Centers.  We place Cambria Hotels where people want and need to be.

ST: What are some elements/features that guests can expect at every Cambria property? 

JC: All Cambria hotels, regardless of the location or market, feature area-inspired artwork that provides time-starved travelers yet another channel to experience the culture and essence of each city.

Another way we bring the heart and soul of each city into every Cambria hotel is through Cambria’s signature Local Craft Beer Program. This program helps us curate a true taste of each destination for guests–whether they’re visiting for a day or a week. Cambria’s very own Certified Cicerone (or beer sommelier) Zach O’Haire works directly with nearby breweries to select and source at least five local craft brews to feature on tap at the hotel. He also helps train and educate hotel staff about each local brew so they can share this knowledge with our curious and experience-hungry guests.

Many of our locations also offer rooftop bars to provide guests with another way to experience the surrounding city. For example, our hotel in Washington, D.C. overlooks the city’s most iconic landmarks and guests of our Asheville, North Carolina location can enjoy stunning 180-degree views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

rooftop view from hotel in boston

 ST: What’s one thing people might not know about your brand and/or common misconception? 

 JC: One added benefit of staying with Cambria is the Choice Privileges loyalty program guests can take advantage of from Choice Hotels.  In addition to being able to access the lowest rate guaranteed when booking directly through our channels, guests can redeem the following exclusive perks when they stay at any Cambria hotel: early check-in and late check-out, preferred parking, elite status jumping, double rewards on weekdays (Sunday – Thursday stays and enjoy your choice of a $10 coffee gift card, $5 Uber credit, $5 Amazon gift card or 800 bonus points), and a $10 Cambria credit redeemable at the restaurant and bar.

More from SmarterTravel:

Ashley Rossi is always ready for her next trip. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.

Editor’s note: Some quotes have been edited for clarity.

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Luggage Locks: Should I Lock My Suitcase When I Fly?


Each time you abandon your suitcase to the not-so-tender mercies of airline baggage handlers and TSA agents, you might wonder, “Should I have locked my luggage?” A study by Stratos, which charters jets, found that airline passengers filed almost 8,000 yearly claims against the TSA for losing items such as clothing, jewelry, and electronics: “In fact, JFK International Airport was once described as a ‘flea market for airport employees,’ with reports claiming that more than 200 items are stolen from passengers’ checked luggage every day.”

So, it’s clear you can’t count on the TSA to reimburse you for such losses; the agency denied more than half of the claims. Are luggage locks the answer?

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The Benefits of Luggage Locks

[st_content_ad]Locking your suitcase doesn’t just make it more difficult for opportunistic baggage handlers or security officers to root through your stuff at the airport. A lock can also help hold your bag’s zippers together so they don’t work their way open while in transit, leaking socks and underwear all over the baggage carousel.

You might also want to lock your bag if you’re staying in a hostel with strangers, or while traveling on a crowded bus or train. Some travelers even lock their suitcases during the day at hotels to deter theft by housekeepers.

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The Limitations of Luggage Locks

Putting a lock on your suitcase isn’t a guarantee that your stuff will be safe. Do a quick search on YouTube, and you’ll find a trove of videos explaining how to open a combination lock without the code or how to break into a locked suitcase with nothing but a ballpoint pen. Nor is it difficult to slice through a soft-sided bag. Locks discourage casual thieves, who will move on to easier targets, but they’re flimsy protection against those who are truly determined to get into your bag.

That’s why you should always keep any valuables in your carry-on, not your checked luggage. As noted above, the TSA is unlikely to pay you back if something is stolen from your checked bag, and airlines typically don’t accept liability for the loss of expensive items such as jewelry, electronic equipment, or fragile souvenirs.

TSA-Approved Locks

If you do decide to secure your suitcase, choose one of the many TSA-approved locks available, such as these combination locks from Master Lock or TravelMore. You can also buy keyed luggage locks such as these from Lewis N. Clark, though it’s worth considering how likely you might be to lose track of a tiny key while traveling. You can even purchase suitcases with built-in TSA-approved locks.

The TSA has master keys that allow agents to open all TSA-approved locks, if they determine that your bag needs extra screening. If you use a non-TSA lock, they’ll simply cut it off your bag. Note that not all security officers outside the U.S. have the same master keys, so even a TSA-approved lock could be cut off if you’re traveling internationally.

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Alternatives to Luggage Locks

Another way to lock your suitcase is to use zip ties, which are cheap enough that you won’t mind if the TSA has to slice them off. Just remember to pack a small pair of scissors in an outside pocket of your suitcase.

Some travelers prefer to wrap their suitcases in plastic, which makes bags harder to break into, protects their exteriors from dings, and keeps them from bursting open if a zipper fails. This bagging service is offered at select airports by companies such as Seal & Go and Secure Wrap. Though security agents will cut off the plastic if they need to inspect your luggage more closely, some wrapping services offer a complimentary rewrap post-security. One disadvantage to this method: By generating so much plastic, it’s the least environmentally friendly way to protect your bag.

Looking for Luggage With a Lock?

“Sold separately” isn’t statement when it comes to the carry-on from Away. While including a TSA-approved lock in its design, this bag also comes with 360° spinning wheels, a super hard exterior shell, and a battery with the power to charge your phone up to four times, this bag is built to be your last.

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Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

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

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The Best International Phone Plans for Travelers


Comb the web for a bit, and it’s not hard to find horror stories of overseas cell phone usage gone wrong, with people paying more for data than they did for their airfare or accidentally spending a month’s rent on background app refreshes. Data download fee disasters seem almost to be a rite of passage for many modern travelers. And with public Wi-Fi networks becoming riskier and riskier, you want to make sure you are also safely connected abroad now too.

Mobile hotspots are a way to beat these fees outright—but if renting still another piece of metal is going too far, or if you think a basic roaming plan will cover you, I’ve gathered details and pricing information about the best international phone plans from five major providers.

International Phone Plans: What You Need to Know

[st_content_ad]When you travel abroad, you will usually be connecting to the cell towers of third-party providers other than your own cell phone company. This means that your cellular provider must pay an access or connection fee to that third-party network, a cost it will pass on to you, usually at a markup. These fees typically show up on your phone bill as “international roaming data” fees.

These costs apply to everything you do with your phone—phone calls, text messages, and, importantly, data usage of all kinds. On this last item of data usage, it is crucial to understand that, unless you are connected to Wi-Fi, every use of your phone incurs a data toll.

That means that viewing and downloading email, browsing the web, viewing social media, and mapping all incur data charges, as do applications that we sometimes assume to be “free,” such as Skype and WhatsApp.

A simple example: While traveling without an international phone plan, you know that making calls while overseas costs extra, so instead you use your WhatsApp number to make calls. Unless you are connected to Wi-Fi, however, WhatsApp is using cellular data, so you are getting charged at your provider’s international roaming data rate. How much does that cost?

On AT&T, international usage costs with no plan in Europe are as follows:

  • Phone calls: $2.00/minute (no charge for incoming calls)
  • Texts: $0.50 per text and $2.05/MB (no charge for incoming texts)
  • Data: $2.05/MB

WhatsApp’s data use depends on whether you are on a 2G, 3G, or 4G network, but on 4G this study by AndroidAuthority puts WhatsApp calling data use at about 750 kilobytes per minute, so a one-minute call using WhatsApp will cost you about $1.50.

Meanwhile, Google Maps uses about six megabytes every 10 minutes, a cost of $12 to go a few miles in your car.

Clearly, data usage can get very costly very fast. To get around that, here are your options for the best international phone plans as of early 2020.

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International Phone Plans with AT&T

Of its several international phone plans, AT&T’s simplest offering is the International Day Pass, which is available in more than 100 countries and costs $10/day for unlimited calling and texting as well as whatever data plan you have at home. One nice feature of AT&T’s plan is that you are charged only for days on which you use the package, so if you are on Wi-Fi all day or never turn on your phone, you save the $10.

Note that Mexico and Canada are included in some AT&T plans, so you don’t need an international package in those countries.

For longer trips, AT&T has two Passport plans. One offers 2GB of data for $70/month and the other offers 6GB for $140/month, including unlimited texting and phone calls for 35 cents a minute.

International Phone Plans with Google Fi

Google Fi is a newcomer to the wireless market, and isn’t for everyone; you won’t get the full benefits of the plan unless you have one of six compatible phone models, including Pixels and select Moto and LG phones. Currently, Google Fi is in beta testing for iPhones and works in part with many Android models.

Google Fi’s international phone plan, the main draw for many customers, is extremely straightforward: “Data abroad costs the same as at home.”

Google Fi offers both an unlimited plan, starting at $70 for one line, and a flexible plan, which costs $20/month for unlimited domestic calls and texts, $10/GB per month for data, and $15/month for an extra person to share your data plan. Internationally, the only substantive difference is that voice calls cost 20 cents per minute; otherwise, your international plan is the same as your domestic plan.

An important caveat is that if you are outside the 200 destinations where Google Fi is available, you will have to get a local SIM card; otherwise, you will not be able to use your device unless you’re on Wi-Fi.

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International Phone Plans with Sprint

Sprint is among the companies that include international connectivity in their standard plans. All Sprint plans that have Sprint Global Roaming enabled include free basic data and unlimited texting in 200 destinations; calls cost 25 cents per minute.

Note that while there is no extra charge for Sprint Global Roaming, you must take the step of adding it to your plan to qualify for the benefits.

The free data comes at up to 2G speeds, which may seem slow compared to what you are used to at home. For faster data speeds, Sprint’s Global Roaming package offers 4G LTE data for $5/day or $25/week in most destinations (it’s $2/day or $10/week in Mexico and Canada, and $10/day or $50/week in China).

International Phone Plans with T-Mobile

T-Mobile has carved out a niche for itself by offering only unlimited plans at fixed prices depending on how many phone numbers you have, starting at $30/line for four lines. T-Mobile also piles on some unexpected benefits with the Magenta plan, including unlimited streaming, in-flight texting, and one hour of data on Gogo-enabled flights.

For travelers, the most interesting element is that texting and data in more than 210 countries are wholly included in the Magenta or Magenta Plus plan.

Even the Essentials plan includes texting abroad as well as 2GB of data outside of coverage areas in Mexico and Canada. The downside, though, is that the standard overseas speed on the Essentials plan is much, much slower than normal connectivity at home. For faster speeds, T-Mobile has two options. The Magenta plan gives you data and texting abroad and an hour of in-flight Wi-Fi, for $5 more per month. Magenta Plus costs $13 extra per month and gives you double the data speed and unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi, as well as 5GB of 4G data in Mexico and Canada, HD streaming, and some other features such as voicemail to text. See T-Mobile’s website for more details on its phone plans.

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International Phone Plans with Verizon

Verizon’s Unlimited Together – North America plan includes unlimited calls, texts, and data in Mexico and Canada—one catch being that after you download 512 MB of data, speeds will be reduced to 2G levels. Otherwise, Verizon’s TravelPass plan is very similar to AT&T’s, with a $10 charge per day, per device to get the same plan you have at home. If you are not on one of the unlimited plans at home, Verizon charges $5/day for coverage in Mexico and Canada.

Verizon also offers monthly international travel plans ranging from $70/month for 100 minutes, 100 sent texts, and 0.5GB of data to $130/month for 250 minutes, 1,000 sent texts, and 2GB of data in more than 185 countries. Pay-as-you-go rates vary for texting and calling, but the standard data charge is $2.05/MB. See this page for all options.

Alternatives to International Phone Plans

If you are going abroad for an extended period of time, you may want to consider some other options to an international phone plan.

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Using Your Own Phone with an International SIM Card

If you would still like to use your personal phone abroad, then consider purchasing a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM card) to use in your own cell phone while you’re traveling internationally. A SIM card is the part of a cell phone that holds the identity information and other personal data; if you switch your own SIM card for one that you purchase in another country, you can have all the benefits of a local phone (such as low in-country calling rates and a local phone number) without having to buy a whole new phone.

You can also purchase an international SIM card that can be used in many different countries. This is a good bet for multi-country trips or for travelers who travel regularly to many different regions around the world. However, the option of replacing the SIM card is only available on unlocked phones. Ask your phone company if your phone’s SIM card can be unlocked.

You can purchase prepaid international and country-specific SIM cards from websites such as Cellular Abroad, Telestial, or OneSimCard. As always, you’ll want to do some comparison shopping before you purchase to find the best rates for the country or countries you’ll be visiting.

Pros:
Rather than buying a whole new phone, you can simply buy a SIM card for your existing phone — which is cheaper and takes up less space in your luggage. You’ll enjoy low local rates for calls, texts, and data within whichever country you’re visiting.

Purchasing an International Cell Phone

Depending on your destination country, you may be able to purchase a local phone with a domestic calling plan. Local plans are often similar to the one you have on your current cell phone; domestic rates are cheap, and the most basic cell phone models are quite affordable.

Research cell phone companies in the country you will visit or look for a local cell phone store. Just make sure that the carrier you choose is popular and well known. Do not buy a cell phone from someone on the street just because you think you’re getting a “deal.”

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Frequent travelers who spend a lot of time in one international location will be best served by purchasing a phone in their destination. Students studying abroad and travelers with international vacation homes or family in another country should also consider purchasing an international cell phone.

Pros:
You’ll enjoy low rates for calling within a foreign country.

Cons:
Fees may be quite high for calling the United States.

You may run into a language barrier when trying to buy a phone. If you don’t fully understand the contract you are signing, do not sign your name.

Renting a Cell Phone

If your phone doesn’t work abroad or you don’t want the hassle of adding and removing a pricey international plan, you may want to look into renting a cell phone through a service such as Cellular Abroad, TravelCell, or TripTel. The company mails you a phone, and your rental includes a return shipping label so you can return the phone after your trip.

The phone you’ll receive will be a local phone, good for making calls in the country in which you are traveling. However, if you are spending more than a week or two in one destination overseas, you may save money by purchasing a local phone and subscribing to a local phone plan, as rates for renting a phone can quickly surpass the cost of a cheap cell phone in a few weeks. Also, domestic calling rates for rental phones may be higher than rates offered by local cell phone service providers.

Rates for rental phones are typically twofold; renters pay a daily, weekly or monthly fee for the cell phone rental and an additional fee for calling minutes. This means that even if you’re not using your phone, you can still be charged the minimum fee for the rental unit. Some rental phone plans have higher rates for calls outside the country, and some don’t—compare plans to see which is best for you. Incoming calls and texts on rental phones are your cheapest option, as they are often less expensive than outgoing calls (or even free). If you are using your rental phone to call home, have your friends and family call you at a designated time and you will save some cash.

Renting a cell phone is best if you’re making a lot of calls but not going on a lot of trips. On a single trip where you make just one or two calls, you may end up paying more for the actual cell phone rental than for the calling minutes.

Pros:
If your usual cell phone won’t work overseas and you’re an infrequent traveler, you save money by renting a phone instead of buying one.

Cons:
Beware of hidden charges. Minimum minute stipulations, charges for incoming calls, or steep roaming rates may apply to your rental. Always make sure you read and understand the fine print.

To avoid charges if you lose a rental phone, you may want to purchase rental insurance at an additional cost.

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

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SmarterTravel Spotlight: Aliz Hotel Times Square, New York City


In New York City, out-of-town visitors often book a hotel for its central location or rooftop bar view. That’s often a mistake if you want any peace and quiet or thoughtful amenities. Not so for the Aliz Hotel Times Square, which is a respite in Times Square’s sea of overcrowded chain hotels.

Just a stone’s throw from Broadway theaters, Hell’s Kitchen’s restaurants, and shiny-new Hudson Yards, the Aliz Hotel is a sleek and thoughtfully designed hotel that packs surprising value for a weekend getaway in the Big Apple.

Aliz Hotel Times Square: Location

Located on West 40th Street, the Aliz Hotel is tucked away off of bustling 8th Avenue. The 40-floor property is walking distance from both Penn Station and numerous subway stations, as well as the Theater District. It’s an ideal option for anyone in the area for a Broadway show, especially if you’d like to be steps from your accommodations when the post-show crowds let out. Also nearby is the Jacob Javits Convention Center, Bryant Park, and the Instagram-worthy Vessel of Hudson Yards. Landmarks and activities like the Empire State Building, High Line, Rockefeller Center, and the Air & Space Museum are also nearby. The cocktail lounge on the top floor, Dear Irving, is the highest two-story, open-air bar in the city, and popular for guests and visitors alike.

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The Rooms

Aliz hotel times square bathroom and king room.

In typical New York City fashion, the rooms are compact but stylish. There are 287 rooms, ranging from Standard King rooms to deluxe versions with their own balcony. Staying on a higher floor I had no issues with sound from the outside streets and enjoyed the surprisingly large marble bathroom, both of which are rare finds in cramped cities. Beekman 1802 bath products, which are a beloved upstate-New York staple, stock the bathrooms.

Dining

Aliz hotel restaurant farm to burger.

There are two dining options at the Aliz Hotel: ground-floor restaurant Farm to Burger, and the sky-high Dear Irving on Hudson. The 40th- and 41st-floor bar and lounge with sweeping Midtown views serves cocktails and small plates. Farm to Burger offers more casual fare plus salads, milkshakes, floats, and a full bar. Dear Irving is a popular spot for private events on the weekends, which makes the ground-floor restaurant a good back-up. There’s also a small lobby bar opposite reception that’s open from 4:00 to 11:00 p.m. daily.

Amenities

Aliz hotel candles amenities.

As a Midtown Manhattan hotel, the Aliz Hotel’s biggest amenity is its rooftop restaurant: Dear Irving has a terrace and indoor lounge that’s open-air in warmer months. The Aliz is also pet-friendly for an added fee. There’s a cycling studio of five Peloton bikes on-site, and a small business center with a printer.

The Aliz Hotel also has a seasonal on-site amenity program that features add-ons like welcome beverages and locally inspired, purchasable souvenirs. For the holiday season, the property hosted a pop-up lobby shop of purchasable, naturally-scented items like candles, soaps, oils, and room sprays from a New York-based Lomar Farms. The rotating seasonal items are ideal for gifting others or simply treating yourself, and are available for purchase in the lobby shop year-round.

Price and Where to Book

Average room rates start around $229 per night but low-season and mid-week deals can be found for as low as $150 per night on TripAdvisor (before taxes and fees), Book online through the Aliz Hotel website for access to packages and deals found here, including discounts for AAA members, Visa cardholders, and American Express cardholders.

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel, and stayed at the Aliz Hotel Times Square as a guest of the property. Follow her adventures on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

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7 Secret Amtrak Tips That Could Save You Money


If you’re considering a trip on Amtrak, you could be eligible for a discount you don’t know about. Amtrak routinely gives up to 30 percent off bookings for an array of reasons, some based on status, some on when you buy, and some on short-term promotions. Here are the Amtrak tips you need to know to save money on a rail journey.

Amtrak Tips You Need to Know

First, it’s important to know what services Amtrak discounts typically apply to, and their terms:

  • Discounts are almost always confined to coach class and ordinary (not high-speed) trains, though there are occasional business-class discounts on Acela. Amtrak only rarely discounts its sleeper class or Acela first class seats, and typically highly publicizes those.
  • Discounts usually apply to all or almost all long-haul and regional routes, although seats are subject to availability and holidays/blackout dates.
  • Discounts often exclude routes where Amtrak does not use seat reservations: typically Keystone and Pennsylvanian trains between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pacific Surfliner trains, Auto Trains, and some Thruway Bus.
  • Most discounts do not apply to the Canadian portion of cross-border trains operated by Amtrak and Canada’s VIA Rail.
  • Some discounts are combinable; others are not. Some discounted fares allow upgrading with payment of fee; others do not. Check individual programs for details.

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Most discounted fares are nonrefundable, but are exchangeable with a 25 percent fee. In addition to discounts on regular tickets, Amtrak tips listed here include its version of a rail pass as well as rail-hotel package details, which can be useful for some travelers.

Status Discounts

Several ongoing Amtrak discounts depend on who you are; appropriate ID may be required when you travel. Status discounts are combinable with some other discounts but not all.

Seniors age 65 and over receive 10 percent discounts on most coach fares. The senior discount is 50 percent on Downeaster trains between Boston and Maine. Kids age two through 12 receive 50 percent discount when traveling with a fare-paying adult. Military on active duty and veterans receive 10 percent discounts on most coach fares.

Travelers with disabilities and companions receive 10 percent discounts on most coach tickets. All Rail Passengers Association members receive 10 percent discounts on most coach fares; three-day advance purchase is required.

Purchase-Based Discounts

Advance Purchase: Amtrak offers a variety of advance-purchase discounts of 20 to 25 percent. The most general is a 20 percent “Saver Fare” discount, nationwide, on its most popular long-distance trains. Purchase tickets seven to 14 days in advance, depending on route.

Smart Fares: Each week, Amtrak posts specific routes with 30 percent coach discounts. Fares post on Tuesdays for purchase during the next four days and for weekday travel starting the following week, ending after three weeks.

Short-Term Promotions

Amtrak frequently posts short-term promotions, with a specified cutoff date, on its deals page. They take several forms:

Conventional coach percentage discounts in limited regions, on specific trains, or to specific traveler groups such as seniors and students. Discounts are typically 15 to 25 percent—no better than “Saver Fares,’ but with either no advance purchase requirement or a shorter period.

Buy-one-get-one or companion offers; sometimes the second ticket free, sometimes the second ticket at 50 percent off.

“Share Fares” for a group of up to six traveling together requires the first traveler to pay full fare, the second to pay 15 percent off, and the third through sixth to pay 60 to 70 percent off the adult fare.

One current temporary 15 percent discount applies to seniors age 62 or over on regional trains within California: Capitol Corridor, Pacific Surfliner, and San Joaquins. This promotion expires January 31, 2020. Route-specific sales can come and go.

Multi-Rides and Passes

Amtrak sells monthly and ten-ride tickets for trips between two specified stations, as well as six-ride tickets for students, limited to a few trains.

Amtrak’s rail pass comes in three sizes: eight segments over a 15-day period, $499; 12 segments over 30 days, $689; and 18 segments over 45 days, $899; half fare for children ages 2-12. Travel is valid on most trains.

There’s also a California pass, $159 for travel on any seven days out of a 21-day period. Children pay half, for travel on Capitol CorridorSan Joaquins and Pacific Surfliner, and Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Dunsmuir, California.

Flash Sales

Amtrak periodically runs flash sales, usually with a purchase period of only a few days, valid for travel over several months. It just completed its fourth annual “Track Friday” sale offering 35 percent discounts on most trains. Last year flash sales offered 35 to 60 percent off some long-haul trains; one sale even included sleeper class. Flash sales also included some BOGO deals and one $10 fare deal.

Packages

Amtrak offers a range of vacation packages, some incorporating both rail travel and hotel accommodations, others concentrating just on destination packages at cities Amtrak serves. As is the case with air/hotel, packages, rail/hotel packages can often cost less than buying rail tickets and hotel accommodations separately. You have to check each specific trip to determine whether packages are good deals.

Making Sure You Get Your Deal

The regular Amtrak website is very good about offering discounts automatically. The booking page accepts inputs about your status and the search system automatically displays discounted fares. Very occasionally, you may need to enter a promotional code. You can arrange discounted Amtrak tickets in person, online, and through Amtrak’s free iPhone or Android app.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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Airport Business Travel Frequent Flyer

7 Ways to Score Airport Lounge Access

While you’re waiting out a long layover, nothing seems more enticing than an airport lounge. With amenities like free Wi-Fi, drinks, snacks, and glossy magazines, airport lounges feel like the answer to most of your travel annoyances. At the very least, they can give you sanctuary from the concourse noise and hubbub.

Lounges were first launched in 1939 by the then-giant airlines as facilities for VIPs and recognized frequent flyers. The no-fee airport lounge membership system was by invitation only. Following a legal challenge in 1966, though, the lines switched to annual paid memberships.

Entrance to most airport lounges usually comes free for those carrying a first- or business-class ticket (and often, for economy-class flyers carrying an active military ID). But for the rest of us stuck in the back of the plane, there are ways to gain access to these comfy inner sanctums without shelling out thousands of dollars for an upgrade. When you’re the one sinking into a cushy armchair instead of clamoring for a seat at the gate, you’ll be glad to have airport lounge access as a respite from the usual airport irritations.

How to Get Into Airport Lounges

Following are seven ways that savvy travelers can get into airport lounges, even if their tickets read “coach.”

Buy a One-Day Airport Lounge Pass

Several airlines sell day passes to their airport lounges, allowing you to relax in comfort without a long-term commitment. Alaska Airlines sells day passes for the airline’s lounges for $50, as does American, while United charges $59 per day. (As of recently, Delta no longer sells single-day airport lounge passes to the general public.) Keep in mind, however, that most of these airline passes are limited to U.S. domestic airport lounges.

If you’re traveling internationally, check out Lounge Pass, which sells day passes to hundreds of airport lounges worldwide, including several at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Admission to these airport lounges typically ranges between $30 to $60 (with a few outliers to the north and south), and most of them restrict the amount of time you can spend there. Some only offer access to passengers flying within that country, so check before you buy.

Best for: Casual travelers.

Invest in an Airport Lounge Membership

It used to be that all business travelers worth their salt carried a lounge membership card with their preferred airline, often purchased on their company’s dime. Those perks are mostly gone now, with road warriors finding more flexible ways to gain access to airport lounges (see the “Elite Status” and “Credit Card” sections below).

If you fly one airline exclusively, however, an airline membership is still something to consider. Airline club memberships also give you access into alliance lounges, including the Star Alliance and Oneworld airlines, which will help a lot if you’re traveling internationally. Of the airlines based in North America, Air Canada, Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, and United currently operate lounge programs, with one or more locations at each major airport they serve. WestJet arranges lounge access at its major terminals. Allegiant, Frontier, JetBlue, and Southwest do not operate their own lounge programs, though JetBlue partners with programs in Montego Bay and Kingston, Jamaica.

If you go the membership route, expect to pay $350 to $650, plus an “initiation fee” between $50 and $100, for an annual membership. Before shelling out, check to make sure that the destinations you visit the most actually have airport lounges; as a rule, you’ll only find these types of clubs in the world’s busier airports.

Best for: Frequent travelers who rely on one airline or alliance.

Try a Third-Party Vendor for Airport Lounge Access

If you have a hard time sticking to just one airline, an airport lounge membership purchased through a third party might make more sense. A company called Priority Pass offers access to more than 1,300 airport lounges worldwide for an annual fee. Participating lounges include a mix of airline, airport, and independent locations, mostly in international departure areas.

What’s nice about Priority Pass is that you can choose from several membership levels. For $429 per year, you get free, unlimited access to all of the airport lounges in the network. If you don’t travel that often, you can pay $299 for 10 free airport lounge visits, with additional visits beyond that costing $32 each. Or you can buy a $99 membership, then pay $32 every time you access an in-network airport lounge. In addition to entry to traditional lounges, members receive a one-time per-visit credit of $28 – $30 toward food and beverage bills at participating airport restaurants and bars. Top airline credit cards, AmEx Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards, and several other premium cards include Priority Pass membership.

Another nice thing about the Priority Pass is that it includes many of the airlines’ own lounges, such as Air France’s airport lounges at JFK, O’Hare, and San Francisco. The pass doesn’t guarantee that you’ll gain access to all of the airlines’ lounges, however, so you’ll have to check in advance to make sure. For that purpose, Priority Pass offers a smartphone app (iOS | Android) that makes it easier to find your airport lounge and learn whether you can access it, whenever you’re on the go.

Best for: Frequent air travelers who take different airlines.

Pay for a Public Airport Lounge

Who needs to worry about those airline-owned clubs? In some airports, public lounges—which let you pay a fee for comfortable chairs, snacks, Wi-Fi access, small meals, and non-alcoholic beverages—are giving the legacy airport lounges a run for their money. Their business model depends on two revenue sources: pay-to-play visits by individual travelers and per-visit charges paid by individual airlines with insufficient traffic to justify their own lounges for premium-ticket flyers. Day rates can start at around $20; some rates are hourly.

At Cleveland’s airport, for example, you can enter the Airspace Lounge after security in the main terminal and pay from $20 per day. (Airspace also has a lounge at San Diego International Airport.)

At Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, you can buy a day pass to The Club, which proffers shower facilities, free Wi-Fi, and complimentary snacks and beverages for $40. The Club also has lounges at 12 other U.S. airports (including in Boston, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Seattle) as well as at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

In addition, a few smaller chains and one-off lounges operate at a range of other North American airports. For the most part, these programs operate on either a day-fee or airline-referral basis rather than on annual memberships.

International travelers can consider Plaza Premium, which offers buffet meals and drinks; some lounges even offer massage and spa services for an extra fee. Current locations include various airports in Canada, China, Australia, Malaysia, India, and more. Rates vary by location.

Best for: Travelers who want more flexibility than airline lounges provide.

Attain Elite Status

Loyalty does have its privileges. Most airlines offer airport lounge access to their customers who make elite status, with benefits that extend throughout the network.

Make Altitude Elite 50k status on Air Canada or Premier Gold on United, for example, and you’ll get access to most of the Star Alliance airport lounges around the world (there are limitations, however, as some lounges restrict Gold access to passengers flying internationally). The SkyTeam Airline Alliance, made up of Delta, Air France, KLM, and other airlines, offers airport lounge access for certain elite members, as does the Oneworld alliance, which is spearheaded by American Airlines.

Best for: Frequent travelers who fly exclusively, or almost exclusively, on one airline or alliance.

Use Your Credit Card to Access Airport Lounges

Getting a credit card that offers airport lounge privileges is perhaps one of the easiest ways to ensure that you’ll never be stuck on the concourse again, although some of these cards carry hefty annual fees.

Take the American Express Platinum Card. For a $550 annual fee, the card gives you VIP access to hundreds of airport lounges around the world, through Priority Pass, Airspace, and Escape Lounges, as well as access to American Express Global Lounges. The card also provides free entry into Delta Sky Clubs, waives foreign transaction charges, and gives you $200 in credits toward airline fees, such as those imposed for checked bags.

Airline credit cards can come with airport lounge perks, too. The United Explorer Card, for example, gives you two one-time-use passes to get into United Clubs, plus other travel extras; there’s no fee for the first year, and then you’ll pay $95 per year thereafter. Select credit cards from Air Canada and Delta also include free or discounted day passes.

Caveat: Before you apply for any credit card, read the fine print to make sure that your spending and traveling habits make getting a card worthwhile.

Best for: Big spenders who don’t mind paying annual fees for perks, as well as occasional flyers who are willing to pay a smaller annual fee for a limited number of airport lounge day passes.

Be a Guest at (or Buy Your Way into) Airport Lounges

And finally, there’s always the kindness of strangers. Some people on travel forums such as FlyerTalk say that they gained lounge access by simply standing outside the door and asking people going inside if they would be willing to bring them in as a guest. You can also check for airport lounge guest passes for sale on eBay.

Best for: People who don’t mind asking strangers for favors.

How to Use Airport Lounges: Rules and Resources

Regardless of how you get in, most lounges follow a few base rules. Most are located airside of security, although a few big airports also have landside arrivals lounges. Typically, you need to show a boarding pass for a flight on the day you enter.

The main problem you might encounter is at a large airport with separate terminals: If you can’t find an airside lounge in the terminal you’re using, you may have to go outside security to a different terminal, go through security there to gain access to the lounge, then repeat the process to get back to the terminal you’re using.

Presumably, you don’t need to be convinced that airport lounge features are desirable, but you might have to be convinced to pay up to $450 a year to take advantage of those features. Annual deals look pretty good if you travel often: Check out programs on the airlines you fly the most and on premium credit cards. And if you aren’t sure, try a day pass somewhere to see if you find it worthwhile.

Several websites focus on airport lounges, including locators, prices, and even advance booking of day-use entry. Check LoungeBuddy or LoungeReview, where you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know about lounge access.

Luggage Essentials for Your Next Trip

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Chris Gray Faust, Ed Perkins, and Margaret Leahy contributed to this story.

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9 Tips for Surviving the Middle Seat


On a typical commercial flight within the United States, about 50 unfortunate souls will be relegated to the dreaded middle seat. What can you do if one of those tortured passengers is you? Here are nine tips to make it to your destination with your sanity—and your comfort—fully intact.

Take a Tray-Table Nap

airplane-tray-table

Aside from occasionally holding a drink or a meal, the tray table doesn’t have much to do during a typical flight. Make use of it by taking an in-flight nap. No need to invest in an embarrassing Ostrich Pillow, however. Roll your jacket into a makeshift pillow, fold forward at the waistline, and snooze away. Whatever you do, though, don’t place your face directly on that petri dish of bacteria (a.k.a. the tray table), or at least disinfect it first.

Sleep Upright

sleeping-airport-travel-pillow

If a tray-table nap isn’t your speed, sleeping upright is also a possibility—even in the middle seat. It starts by picking the perfect travel pillow for your body, whether that’s a standard neck pillow, a shoulder-wrapping Travelrest Pillow, or even a candy cane travel pillow. Though they may not be as cuddly as their foam-filled counterparts, consider blow-up travel pillows for their space-saving qualities.

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Invest In Noise-Canceling Headphones

For just a few hours, a pair of good headphones can be a middle-seat passenger’s best friend. The right set tuned to a good movie or music can take your mind off the otherwise muscle-contorting rigors of the middle seat.

Claim Your Territory

front of plane

Even if you’re sandwiched between fellow passengers, your personal space needn’t be too limited. Board quickly at your first opportunity so as to make it to your seat before your seatmates, and then mark the armrests as your own. Don’t feel too guilty: It’s widely accepted that the middle passenger gets both armrests. But it’s important to claim them early, lest you find yourself next to a passenger who doesn’t buy into common courtesy.

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Make the Most of Your Knee Space

man sitting on airplane headphones and phone

Speaking of claiming space, do so for your knees as well. In such close quarters, every little inch counts. Consider politely asking your neighbor to refrain from leaning back if it really causes you discomfort. You’ll be surprised how considerate people can be when asked politely.

Keep Busy

Ever notice how time seems to fly by when you’re busy? Watch a movie, read, or play a game. Whatever your time-kill, just keep yourself entertained and before you know it the “fasten seatbelt” sign will go off and the pilot will announce your arrival.

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Bring an In-Flight ‘Survival Kit’

woman using traveling pillow and sleeping mask in plane

Regardless of which seat you occupy—but especially if it’s the middle seat—keep the following items handy for in-flight sanity (or make up your own in-flight packing list): an eye mask, electronics (a tablet, laptop, or handheld game console), headphones, non-electronic reading material or a puzzle book, a sweater or jacket, and snacks.

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Ask to Be Reseated

Just because you were assigned a middle seat doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be stuck with it. Inquire with the gate staff about any remaining, available window or aisle seats. They may seat you in a more preferable location if one is open.

If you missed your opportunity at the gate, you have yet another shot at a better seat location by asking the flight attendant. Once everyone’s boarded and the plane’s cruising at a high altitude (but before the drink trolley comes out), politely ask the flight attendant if a window or aisle seat is open. Chances are, the empty seat will move you to the rear of the plane, but at least you won’t be the meat section in a seat sandwich.

Do Better Next Time

suitcases with plane in background

The best way to survive the middle seat, of course, is to avoid it altogether. Book early and, if you can, select your seat during the booking process. For airlines that don’t allow advanced seat selection (like Southwest), check in for your flight as soon as you can (in Southwest’s case, as early as 24 hours in advance). Because Southwest assigns boarding groups based on when you check in for the flight, the earlier you check in, the more likely you are to score your favorite seat.

What to Wear While Traveling this Season

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

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Senior Editor Patricia Magaña Figueroa writes about travel. Follow her @PatiTravels.

This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Active Travel Budget Travel Business Travel Food & Drink Health & Wellness Travel Trends

SmarterTravel Spotlight: EVEN Hotel Eugene, Oregon


If you’re a wellness guru, or simply someone who likes to keep up with their exercise and eat healthy food when traveling, EVEN Hotels might be for you. The new “lifestyle” hotel brand comes from IHG, the hotel group that also includes Holiday Inn, InterContinental, Kimpton, and more than a dozen other brands. And it’s fast-growing: EVEN Hotels so far has 11 locations throughout the U.S., with 24 more in the pipeline.

And it’s a comfortable mid-range choice even if you aren’t into fitness. I tried the brand at the EVEN Hotel Eugene, Oregon, location—which fully exemplifies the new IHG line’s concept. Travelers on TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) have so far rated this EVEN Hotel as the fourth-best hotel in Eugene. Here’s why.

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The Location

EVEN hotel eugene, oregon daytime

The Eugene EVEN Hotel is located near the center of the city, in a quiet neighborhood surrounded mainly by office buildings. It’s one of only three hotels within a 15-minute walk to Autzen Stadium and PK Park, where the University of Oregon Ducks play football and baseball. It’s also about a 10-minute walk from the Cuthbert Amphitheater, Eugene’s center for outdoor summer concerts and other events. And it’s quite close to other Eugene visitor highlights, including the university, Amtrak Station, and the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Getting here is easy, with quick access from the highway.

The Rooms

EVEN hotel eugene, oregon room.

This EVEN Hotel has large rooms, at about 400 square feet, with a mix of full-size, king, and two-bed sleeping options. The rooms are modern and provide all that you’d expect, with free and fast Wi-Fi. Bathrooms offer a choice of tub-shower and walk-in shower designs.

What makes EVEN Hotels unique is that each room includes some free, basic fitness equipment, including a roll-out mat, an exercise ball, and resistance bands. EVEN Hotel Eugene is part of a small pilot program that ups the ante on exercise even further: Some rooms have an in-room Mirror fitness system, a full-body mirror with a holographic image display in the center that presents one of several selectable workout regimens taught by trainers. It’s impossible to see it accurately in a photograph of the display, but the in-person image is high-quality.

Dining

EVEN hotel eugene, oregon food.

The Cork & Kale bar and dining area that’s standard at EVEN Hotels features a menu listing mainly healthy food options—heavy on salads and other vegetables-centric dishes as well as burgers and flatbreads. Breakfast is buffet-style, again with lots of healthy options. Cold infused drinking waters at the lobby are also ideal for filling a travel water bottle at any time. The bar serves the usual gamut of choices, including healthy drinks, plus a full bar with the local draft IPAs that are virtually mandatory now in the Pacific Northwest. In addition, the hotel lobby provides healthy packaged grab-and-go snacks for purchase.

EVEN hotel eugene dining area and snacks.

The dinner menu—which seems to be the same at all locations—isn’t going to attract many foodies. Fitness enthusiasts who travel often seem to be the hotel’s main focus; if you’re hoping to stay at a property with a unique dining option, you’re probably better off staying elsewhere or planning on eating dinners around  Eugene (more on that below).

Amenities and Things to Do

EVEN hotel eugene fitness center.

The fitness center is the main amenity for EVEN Hotels. It’s large with far more devices and facilities than most exercise options in comparable hotels. The Eugene property’s fitness center also includes a Mirror work-out system, in case your room doesn’t. A pool and hot tub cater to just about every traveler, and there’s also an all-purpose lounge with a ping pong table. Parking is free—some is covered, some is open, with no reservations required. The Eugene EVEN Hotel also offers a free airport shuttle service. And while the hotel even emphasizes using the stairs for fitness, there is an elevator for those who prefer or need it. The property also has an outdoor patio with a fire pit.

EVEN hotel eugene patio with fire pit.

The hotel concierge  can arrange just about any local activity for you: During my visit, I took a tour of the burgeoning local wine industry, courtesy of Eugene Wine Tours, featuring tasting rooms that could rival Napa or Sonoma’s. Included on the tour is The King Estate, a huge complex that includes an excellent full-service restaurant. Oregon is an esteemed wine destination with special focus on varietals like pinot gris and pinot noir. Other outstanding local wineries include Sweet Cheeks and Iris.

Price and How to Book

Regular flexible rates start at around $124 per night, and IHG member rates start as low as $106 but are nonrefundable. Package options including breakfast are available. On football weekends, expect to pay more than the starting rate—but only next year, as the hotel is already sold out for this football season.

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SmarterTravel’s Ed Perkins stayed at the EVEN Hotel Eugene as a guest of the property.

A consumer advocate, Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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Booking Strategy Business Travel

5 Ways to Fit ‘Travel’ Into a Business Trip


There’s little more frustrating to a diehard traveler than being sent on a highly scheduled business trip that leaves little to no time for actual travel. Especially in iconic tourist destinations, it’s difficult to watch as others excitedly get ready for their fun day of sightseeing as you double-check your laptop bag to ensure you’ve got everything you’ll need. But clever travelers don’t let a busy slate of meetings get in the way of fitting some fun time into their business trips. More people are now scheduling “bleisure travel,” a combination of business travel and vacation time in the same trip.

Here are five tips for getting some travel into your next business trip.

Add Extra Time

The easiest way to fit travel into a business trip is to tack on a day or two before or after your trip (especially if that includes a weekend!). Even if you can only fly in the day before, arrange your flight for early in the morning, drop your bags off at the hotel, and head out ASAP. You might be surprised how much you can fit into three-quarters of a day if you’re motivated enough.

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Plan Ahead

The best way to make the most of your time on a bleisure trip is to know exactly what you want to do and where those attractions are located in relation to where you’ll be. By mapping out a plan of action before you arrive, you won’t waste valuable downtime trying to figure out what to do during your pockets of free time.

Take a Walk or Run

A great way to get the feel of the place you’re visiting is to hit the streets, either by walking or, if you’re a runner, on a jog. Jogging might only be doable in the morning or late evening, but if you’ve got lunch free, why not go for a quick walk? Look for a nearby park, hit the downtown area, or choose some streets at random. (Use common sense though; if it doesn’t look safe, don’t go.)

Skip the Hotel Restaurant

No matter where you travel for work, you should try to get in at least one meal at a local restaurant. If you’ve got business colleagues in the area, ask them for a recommendation, get them to take you out for a quick bite, or, best of all, wrangle an invite to their home for dinner.

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Skip the Conference/Airport Hotel Altogether

If it’s feasible, skip the generic conference/airport hotel altogether and opt for an extended stay hotel (if you’re staying long enough), an Airbnb, or, if you’ve got friends in the area, someone’s guest bedroom. All of these will give you the chance to see a part of the city you might not have otherwise gotten to see, force you out to buy your own groceries from a local shop, and maybe even mingle with the residents.

How have you found ways to fit travel into your business trips? Share your bleisure travel tips in the comments below.

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

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8 Practical (and Cool) Watches for Travel in 2019


A watch is a timeless travel essential. From checking the time to wearing your boarding pass on your wrist, watches and smartwatches keep your trip on track.

Best Watches for Travel

These eight watches for travelers have just the sort of dual-functionality—think tide charts and GPS tracking logs—you’ll want on your next adventure.

Garmin fenix Chronos

 

If you’re an adventure traveler, this is one of the best travel watches for you. Whether you’re paddleboarding, on the golf course, or hitting the slopes, Garmin’s fenix Chronos will measure very specific physical activities, like stroke rate; yardage to the front, back, and middle of the green; and an autonomic run counter for skiers/boarders. And if you’re an avid hiker, this travel watch helps you navigate beyond the beaten path with GPS and ABC (altimeter, barometer, and compass) sensor capabilities, along with elevation and weather changes. Plus, there’s a TracBack feature that helps you find your starting point the same way you came, and a GPS track log that allows you to pinpoint along your trail.

On top of it all, the fenix Chronos connects to your smartphone for email, text, alerts, and other notifications—all with an eight-day battery life (when in the smartwatch mode, depending on settings).

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Cluse Watches

 

Cluse makes some of the best watches for travel with interchangeable straps. Geared specifically to style-conscious (but still light-packing) travelers, Cluse watches are totally customizable: you get to pick the watch face, size, and color, as well as straps. From mesh rose gold to full black, you can travel with two (or three, or four) watch styles in one.

Fitbit Versa 2

fitbit-versa-2 

The Fitbit Versa 2 is an affordable all-in-one fitness tracker and travel watch. Track your steps around your favorite destination; get call, text, and calendar alerts; and keep track of time. This travel watch has a long battery life and uses auto sleep tracking so you can stay on top of your jet lag or time zone change.

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Nixon Base Tide

 

The Nixon Base Tide is one of the coolest watches for travel, especially for anyone heading to a beachy destination.  The simply designed watch is affordable and boasts unique features like a tide chart and countdown timer. It’s water resistant to 100 meters, so you can even wear it swimming and snorkeling.

Apple Watch Series 5

 

The Series 5 Apple Watch is one of the best watches for travelers because it pairs with your useful smartphone apps, like Apple Wallet (for your boarding pass), Apple Pay, Apple Music, and Siri. It’s also a fitness tracker, sleep tracker, GPS, and more. You can turn the watch to “Do Not Disturb” mode so you don’t get phone, text, or calendar alerts while you’re on vacation—you’re welcome.

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Samsung Gear S3 Frontier

 

Samsung has its own smartwatch that’s compatible with both Android and iOS—the Gear S3 Frontier. The Samsung version looks more like an actual watch than the Apple Watch does, but other than that the features are pretty similar.

The Gear S3 uses Samsung Pay, GPS, is water resistant, and uses Bluetooth to connect to your phone. On the fitness front, the Gear S3 uses Under Armour Connected Fitness apps and the S Health app to help you stay on track on the road. Plus, it connects to all your normal smartphone apps like Uber, Spotify, etc., and sends you notifications from your phone—all you have to do is rotate the steel bezel to access updates.

Tissot Swiss Quartz

 

GMT +, the function that lets you tell dual time, is a defining feature of old-school travel watches. Tissot’s version of the GMT + watch is a timeless classic with modern design elements. And while many watches with GMT + retail in the thousands, this version is one of the more affordable travel watches with this feature.

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Fossil Hybrid Smartwatch

 

Fossil’s hybrid smartwatch series is great for business travelers because the watches are both stylish and functional. The primary role is a built-in fitness tracker, but these travel watches also connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth and send notifications for text, emails, app alerts, and calendar alerts, and can read multiple time zones. With the watch, you can control your music, track your sleep, and take a photo. I also love the variety of style options available.

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SmarterTravel.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

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

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Booking Strategy Business Travel Security

How to Find Out If Your MacBook Pro Has Been Banned from Flying


Fly often with your MacBook Pro? Not so fast. Apple recently issued a recall of over 400,000 MacBook Pro laptops, citing a tendency for the batteries to overheat and pose a fire hazard, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took notice. Those affected laptops are now also banned from being brought on aircraft, both as a carry-on and in checked luggage.

The recall concerns roughly 432,000 MacBook Pro laptops sold between September 2015 and February 2017. The company received a few dozen reports of batteries in these models overheating, with a few cases of minor burns, one case of smoke inhalation, and several claims of minor property damage.

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How to Find Out If Yours Is Affected

Apple set up a page where owners can enter their serial number to determine if their MacBook Pro is affected by the recall. Owners should first confirm their model is a “MacBook Pro (Retina, 15-inch, Mid 2015),” which can be found by choosing “About this Mac” from the Apple logo menu on the top left of your screen. If it is, your serial number is then the next step to determining your device has been recalled. Apple says service on affected machines will take 2-3 weeks.

Will You Be Allowed to Fly with One?

The FAA hasn’t explicitly banned MacBook Pro laptops from your luggage, but its doesn’t have to: The FAA bans any and all recalled lithium-ion batteries from being brought on aircraft. So these recalled laptops should not be allowed to fly. You may recall a similar situation with Samsung phones catching fire a few years ago, which was no different than the current MacBook issue. If a manufacturer recalls its batteries due to a potential fire hazard, those batteries are banned (and for good reason) from the skies. The FAA said it was “aware of the recalled batteries that are used in some Apple MacBook Pro laptops” and that it had notified major U.S. airlines about the devices.

It seems unlikely, however, that TSA agents and airline staff will be able to distinguish between a banned MacBook and a non-banned one without going through the process of looking up the serial number. This means it’s on the owner to figure out if their machine needs to be repaired, to repair it, and to not fly with it in the meantime. And that might not be easy if you use your MacBook for work.

Assuming you do all that, what’s to stop an eagle-eyed TSA agent from denying passage to your fixed or unaffected laptop? Forbes suggests bringing your repair paperwork with you until this whole fiasco blows over. Or you could also print out the page showing your laptop isn’t part of the recall, if that’s the case. Still, it’s easy to see how this situation could get dicey in a busy security line, and no one wants their not-actually-banned laptop confiscated in an abundance of caution.

Readers, do you have an affected MacBook Pro? Comment below.

Macbook Pro Travel Case

Macbook Pro Travel Case via Amazon

Macbook’s aren’t cheap- make sure yours stay protected on your flight with a travel case.

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