Categories
Entertainment Road Trip

What Happens to Items Left Behind in Hotels?

When you forget something in a hotel room, what happens to it? We answer this question plus others on coronavirus, Japan, packing, and more in this month’s edition of our travel advice column, Check Your Baggage.

Q.“I left my phone charger plugged into my hotel room in Paris and didn’t realize until I returned home. It’s not worth the expense for me to have it returned, but I’m curious—what happens to things that are left behind in hotels? Do they get thrown away?” – DC

A. Think of your phone charger as a gift to the next hapless traveler who forgot their own. Most hotels will keep a box of lost chargers, converters, and adapters at the front desk to loan out to travelers in need.

Policies vary by hotel—as a Hilton spokesperson told me: “Each property has an individualized approach on how they support our guests’ unique needs including managing when items are left in one of our hotel rooms during their stay. If a guest discovers they’ve left an item behind, we recommend they contact the hotel directly as soon as possible to best enable our Team Members to try and assist. Some properties have extended lost and founds—we also have dedicated customer care support lines to help assist 24/7, but most properties will keep lost items for a certain amount of time before donating any unclaimed items.”

If you do want that item back, give the front desk a call to see if they have it—the hotel may ship it to you for free, or charge you for the cost of shipping and handling.

Just don’t wait for the hotel to call you about your lost item—here’s why they may be reluctant to reach out.

Q. “Between coronavirus and the flu, I’m getting nervous about my upcoming trip (even though it’s just a domestic flight). How can I avoid catching something while flying?” – BD

A. You’ve already gotten your flu shot, right? That’s the best (and most obvious) way to protect yourself from the flu, but it’s not 100 percent effective. There isn’t a vaccine for the coronavirus, but the CDC recommends you do the following to prevent respiratory viruses:

  • Wash your hands (the correct way) after using the restroom and before eating.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. (This one is tough to do on a plane. However, you can use the air vent to help blow away any airborne microbes.)

[st_related]How to Properly Disinfect Your Airplane Seat[/st_related]

Q. “I like to work out whenever I travel, but I struggle with packing running shoes since they take up so much space. (And I refuse to wear them on the plane, because I want to look nice, even in the airport.) Any advice?” – CS

A. Start with a lightweight shoe to make packing easier. I like to shop on Zappos because it allows you to filter by shoe weight, so you can look for one that weighs between one and five ounces, for example. Although bright colors are trendy right now, I invest in running shoes that are a neutral color like black or white, so that they will go with more things in my travel wardrobe in case I need them to pull double duty.

For packing, stash your shoes in a washable shoe bag that will keep your dirty sneakers from contaminating the rest of your clothes. Use the space inside your shoes to pack small items like socks or underwear, which will help minimize the footprint your shoes take up inside your suitcase.

[st_related]25 Things to Make Working Out on Vacation More Fun[/st_related]

Q. “Every time I open Instagram, someone else I know is going to Japan. Am I imagining things or has Japan exploded as a tourist destination recently?” – JT

A. You’re not making it up—Japan is on the rise as a tourist destination. According to Japan Rail Pass (a booking site for Japanese rail travel), 2019 was a record-breaking year for tourism in the country, with over 32.5 million foreign visitors. Prepare yourself to see even more shots of ramen shops on your feed in 2020, as Tokyo will be hosting the Olympics, and the country is bracing for an estimated 40 million visitors for the year.

Q. “My friends and I are looking to take a vacation with our (young) kids, but are having trouble finding a vacation rental that’s safe for children. Is there a filter or something I’m missing?” – MM

A. Check out KidandCoe.com, a vacation rental search engine that only features child-friendly properties. It even offers baby equipment rentals and itinerary help if you need it.

Q. “I’m planning a trip to Ireland that involves renting a car. Do I need an international driver’s license?” – PH

A. As long as your trip to Ireland is less than a year long, you don’t need to get an international driver’s license—your U.S. one will work. To decide if you need to get the international driver’s license, check the U.S. State Department or embassy website for the country that you’re visiting. Here’s the page for Ireland.

[st_related]The 16 Best Car Rental Booking Sites[/st_related]

Q. “My friends live in Syracuse and I live in D.C., and we want to meet up somewhere halfway for a reunion. Any suggestions for a good spot?” – JM

A. Check out the website Whatshalfway.com, which will calculate a meeting spot that’s exactly halfway between you and your friend. The suggested town (in this case, Schnecksville, Pennsylvania) might not be exactly what you’re looking for, but it will give you a good starting point to start your search. In your case, I’d recommend New York City as the closest midway meeting spot with plenty to keep you busy.

Traveling? Consider These Carry-On Options

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

Got a burning travel question you want to see answered in next month’s column? Do you vehemently disagree with my answers to this month’s questions? Comment below or send me an e-mail at editor@smartertravel.com with the subject line: Check Your Baggage.

Editor’s note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.

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Categories
Entertainment Health & Wellness Travel Etiquette

How to Find Bedbugs

In this month’s edition of our travel advice column, Check Your Baggage, we show how far you have to go to check for bedbugs, why some people have to re-interview for a Global Entry renewal, and how to avoid hidden car rental fees.

Q. “Do I really have to strip the entire bed in my hotel room to check the mattress for bedbugs? What’s the minimum I can do to feel safe?” – ST

A. I also wonder if my method of pulling back the sheets and checking just the top corner of the mattress is effective, so I asked Sarah Latyn, an expert at BedbugCentral.com. Her advice: “When it comes to hotel rooms a good visual inspection can be performed on areas you can see without actually moving anything (besides the sheets). These areas are between the mattress and box spring, on and under the box spring, and/or around and behind the headboard.” There’s also this video from BedbugCentral.com that will make you feel both better and worse about bedbugs and hotel rooms—according to the video, there’s a one in one hundred chance you’re staying in a room with bedbugs, but the chances you’ll take some home with you might not be as bad as you fear.

Q. “On a recent trip, my phone was about to die at the airport, but one person was hogging all of the outlets for the entire time I was waiting to board! Is it rude to ask someone to unplug to make room for my phone?” – ND

A. Most people aren’t in generous moods at the airport, so your request probably wouldn’t go over well. Next time, try letting the outlet monopolizer know that you’re waiting by simply saying something like: “My phone’s about to die, would you mind letting me know when you’re done charging?” and then lurking somewhere nearby. Alternatively, pack a travel power strip next time, and you can ask to share the outlet without someone else needing to unplug.

[st_related]The 13 Best Portable Travel Chargers[/st_related]

Q. “Both my wife and I renewed our Global Entry memberships, but only I got called to interview again. Why me?” – CS

A. Don’t take it personally, Customs and Border Protection probably doesn’t think you’re a shadier person than your wife. Have you changed jobs since you first applied for Global Entry?

According to a CBP spokesperson, “U.S. Customs and Border Protection individually processes and vets all Global Entry applications and renewals. The most common reason for an interview following a Global Entry renewal is to verify any changes made to the member’s profile, including name, address, document and/or employment updates.”

The interviews are usually very brief (less than 10 minutes); and don’t forget that you can request to do your interview without an appointment when you return to the country after an international flight. Click here for more information on Enrollment on Arrival.

Q. “On a recent trip, I had an urgent question for my Airbnb host, but she didn’t return any of my emails. What should you do if you can’t get in touch with your Airbnb host?” – CM

A. If your host isn’t responding to messages, you can call them through the Airbnb app.  (The option is located under “Your Home Reservation.”) For more specific options, see Airbnb’s advice on reaching your host here.

Q. “My car rental almost always costs more than what they quoted me initially. Why can’t they actually tell me ALL the extra fees and charges when I book? How can I avoid surprises?” – SS

A. This is where car rental booking sites can really come in handy. Ones like CarRentals.com will show you a breakdown of all of the estimated taxes and fees that add on to your bottom line. For example, I searched for a one-day rental and the price shows as $23, but CarRentals.com notes that I will have to pay an extra $27 on arrival, which includes random charges like: “customer facility charge, concession recovery fee, energy surcharge, rental vehicle surcharge, state tax, and vehicle excise reimbursement.”

[st_related]Car Rental Hidden Fees[/st_related]

Q. “I took an Amtrak trip a month ago and still haven’t received points for it in my rewards account. What should I do?” – EP

A. Amtrak’s website doesn’t make this form easy to find, but you can easily request your missing points here. Just note that you’ll have to wait up to seven days for your points to show up and that you can’t send the request 120 days or more after you’ve traveled.

Got a burning travel question you want to see answered in next month’s column? Do you vehemently disagree with my answers to this month’s questions? Comment below or send me an e-mail at editor@smartertravel.com with the subject line: Check Your Baggage.

Editor’s Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.

More from SmarterTravel:

 

Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from around the world. 

Categories
Travel Etiquette

How to Identify Counterfeit Alcohol

In this month’s edition of our travel advice column Check Your Baggage, we discuss dangerous drinks, pies in the sky, the Global Entry renewal backlog, and more.

How to Spot Counterfeit Alcohol

Q. “Even though the recent tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic were found not to be caused by tainted alcohol, I’m still worried about it. How can I protect myself from getting a dangerous drink abroad?”—CT

A. Tainted alcohol is a real problem. According to the World Health Organization, around 25 percent of the alcohol in the world is illegal (meaning that it’s not monitored for quality or taxed). Unscrupulous businesses will try to save some money by stocking counterfeit alcohol that has been made illegally and with no oversight; this liquor can be tainted with methanol or other deadly add-ins.

Protect yourself by learning how to spot counterfeit alcohol. The United Kingdom’s Trading Standards Institute advises checking the four Ps: place, price, packaging, and product. Try to buy your alcohol from reputable shops and bars, don’t fall for deals that seem too good to be true, avoid bottles with labels that seem slightly off (look for misspellings of brand names or peeling labels) or don’t have properly sealed caps, and check the smell and appearance of the liquor before drinking it.

Can I Bring My Famous Pecan Pie on the Plane?

Q. “I’m traveling for Thanksgiving and want to bring my famous pecan pie on the plane with me. It’s not really a jiggly pie in the way that pumpkin is, so will the TSA be cool with it?”—TJ

A. If you have to ask yourself, “will the TSA be cool with it,” the answer is usually no. However, as a Thanksgiving miracle, I’m happy to report that the TSA is in fact onboard with letting your pie … onboard—even if it’s a “jiggly” pumpkin. According to the TSA’s handy “Can I Bring” tool, pie is allowed in carry-ons and checked bags. Just be warned that it will still have to go through the X-ray machine.

[st_related]What Are the Rules Around Airline Flight Changes?[/st_related]

Global Entry Backlog

Q. “I submitted my Global Entry renewal application and was called in for an interview. When I try to schedule one, the site doesn’t show any availability at an airport near me for a year! What do I do?”—KT

A. According to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Trusted Traveler programs like Global Entry and TSA PreCheck are still catching up from the partial government shutdown almost a year ago. If you can’t find an open interview slot near you, the CBP advises that you keep checking the website, as cancellations might free up spots. Anecdotally, we’ve seen success with this approach. Editor Christine Sarkis checked twice a week for four weeks without finding a single appointment at her closest airport. But on the fifth week, suddenly more than half a dozen appointments opened up.

You can also try an “Enrollment on Arrival” interview if, after an international flight, you’re arriving at an airport that offers Global Entry. Depending on availability, you may be allowed to combine your arrival screening with your renewal interview.

The good news is that if you have applied for renewal before your current membership has expired, you can still use your Global Entry until your renewal is finalized (for up to six months after your expiration date).

[st_related]A Guide to Global Entry Renewal[/st_related]

How Often Should the Window Seat Get Up on a Flight?

Q. “I was recently stuck in a middle seat on a long flight, and the person in the window seat asked me to move at least four times so that he could get up. Isn’t that too many times?” —CC

A. Until the airlines come to their senses and design coach seats that allow passengers to get out of their seats without disturbing others, unfortunately my answer will have to be: no amount of times is too many (if there’s a legitimate reason).

If your seatmate was experiencing some medical distress, you’d probably rather have him or her get up and use the facilities than the airsickness bag next to you, wouldn’t you? Of course, people sitting in the window and middle seats should try to be considerate and not get up unless they really need to (or try to time their seat breaks for when someone else in the row is also getting up), but that can’t always be helped. Try to keep your seatmates’ needs in mind and not get up while they’re sleeping if you can wait. If you find yourself in that situation again and you’re comfortable with the idea, you could also suggest that you swap seats with the passenger who needs to get up often.

The only thing I think we can all agree on? People should never violently grab the back of the seat in front of them when getting up.

[st_related]Are Hotel Bathtubs Clean?[/st_related]

Buying Locals Tickets: Travel Hack or Unethical Move

Q. “On a recent trip to Belize, we took a ferry that was charging locals one price and tourists another for a ticket. My friend (a tourist) thought this was unfair and so paid a local to buy tickets for us at the local price, but I felt a little uncomfortable. Is this a legit travel hack that people do?” —CC

A. I’ve seen travelers boast about this trick, but it’s an unethical move for sure. Many local ferries and other forms of domestic transportation depend on tourist revenue to stay in business. The locals use these boats as part of their everyday life and livelihood, so it wouldn’t be fair to expect someone earning a local wage to pay the same price as a higher-earning tourist on vacation. If you can afford to travel, you can afford to be honest and pay the tourist price.

[st_related]Are Airlines Tracking Your Flight Search … and Raising Prices?[/st_related]

A Tight Connection

Q. “I have a super tight connection (45 minutes) on an upcoming flight and I’m nervous about missing my plane. How can I make sure I make it?” —MT

A. A connection time that short is a gamble, but there are a few things you can do to maximize your chance of making your onward flight. Try to pick a seat in the front of the plane so you can be one of the first people off. If you get stuck in the back of the plane, flag down a friendly flight attendant during your journey and let them know about your situation—they may make an announcement asking people to remain in their seats upon landing so that you can get off first. (This works better if your flight is delayed and a few others are in the same situation.) Sign up for flight notifications through your airline so you’ll be alerted to what gate you’re arriving at and which gate you need to get to, and then study the airport map on the plane (this may require you to have already downloaded the connection airport’s app so you have easy access to terminal maps).

If all else fails, be prepared to run! There’s no shame in an airport sprint when a missed flight is on the line.

[st_related]What You Need to Know About Making a Connecting Flight[/st_related]

Got a burning travel question you want to see answered in next month’s column? Do you vehemently disagree with my answers to this month’s questions? Comment below or send me an e-mail at editor@smartertravel.com with the subject line: Check Your Baggage.

Editor’s Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.

More from SmarterTravel:

 

Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from around the world. 

 

Categories
Health & Wellness In-Flight Experience

Are Hotel Bathtubs Clean?

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You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers. In this month’s edition of our travel advice column, Check Your Baggage, we reveal if hotel bathtubs are clean, offer flying hacks for short people, talk group-trip financial dynamics, and give you the lowdown on the relationship between Global Entry and TSA PreCheck.

Are Hotel Bathtubs Clean?

Q. “Sometimes I hesitate to soak in a hotel tub even if it looks inviting. I can’t help thinking of all the people that have been in there before me! Are hotel bathtubs really clean?”—CS

A. Considering that everything from hotel room remotes to in-room drinking glasses have been called out for their filthiness, it makes sense that the hotel bathtub would seem suspicious. But I don’t bring along a blacklight or germ culture kit when I travel (yet), so I did the next best thing and asked the experts.

Rob Dunn, Professor of Applied Ecology at NC State University, reassured me. “Your chances of encountering a microbe that will make you sick in the bathtub while bathing aren’t very high,” he said. “They are far higher from shaking the hand of the person at the front desk than from lounging in the tub. In short, lounge in the tub and don’t worry about it. But wash your hands with soap and water (though never antimicrobial soap) after shaking hands.”

Erica Marie Hartmann, Assistant Professor at Northwestern University, notes that even if you do encounter some microbes in your hotel bathtub, they’re unlikely to cause any problems for a healthy person—and you may be more likely to find microbes in your hotel showerhead than in the bathtub anyway.

Both professors agree—don’t drink the tub water, and you’ll be fine.

Short People Struggle on Flights Too

Q. “I’d like to see some suggestions for the shorter people, whose feet don’t touch the floor for an entire 14-hour flight, besides ‘get up every 2 hours and walk around.’ What about ideas and tips for those of us who are not ‘standard size’?” —JP

A. Coach seats benefit no one, neither the tall traveler nor the short flyer. Until airlines decide to give us all lie-flat seats, there is a device that can help more petite people be comfortable on the plane. This travel foot hammock may look a little weird, but it will help solve the problem of your feet not touching the floor, plus give you some leg and lower back support. It’s incredibly easy to use and adjustable.

[st_related]Can You Bring Batteries on Planes?[/st_related]

Group-Trip Gripe

Q. “I have a group of friends that does an epic girls’ trip every year. However, we always end up fighting over who pays what bill! Do you have any suggestions for making group travel payments painless?” —AL

A. Group trips are all fun and games until it’s time for the struggle over splitting checks and fighting over who paid for the Uber last time. When I travel with friends, we use the app Splitwise, which makes it super easy to keep track of who owes what. You can quickly add shared expenses to the app, and designate if items are being split equally or not and which members of your group are involved in the cost. Then at the end of the trip, the app calculates who owes what, making it painless to settle up.

[st_related]5 Ways to Stay Sane When Planning a Trip with Friends[/st_related] 

Is it Safe to Travel?

Q. “I try to not be overly alarmist about travel, but sometimes I hear news reports about a destination that make me leery. Any advice on how to decide if a place is safe to visit?” —RA

A. If you listened to the internet (or your mom), you might never travel anywhere again. I like to start by checking the U.S. Department of State’s travel advisory for a destination I’m considering. However, these can lean a little on the alarmist side, so I try to get a more balanced picture by also checking the Canadian government’s travel advice and advisories page and the United Kingdom’s Foreign travel advice site.

Where’s My PreCheck?

Q. “I have Global Entry, but on a recent flight I didn’t get TSA PreCheck on my boarding pass. What gives?” —KT

A. Once you go PreCheck, it’s hard to go back to the sad shoes-off line with everybody else. The good news: if your boarding pass doesn’t have the PreCheck designation, most of the time it’s because your Known Traveler Number didn’t make it on your reservation. Call your airline (or go to the check-in desk if you’re already at the airport) to have them add it back in and reissue your now-golden-again ticket. You can also easily do this online for most airlines (the Points Guy has an extremely comprehensive guide of how to do this for every airline if you can’t find the spot in your reservation).

If that didn’t work, unfortunately, TSA PreCheck is not guaranteed for security reasons, and you may have been flagged for extra screening. If this happens, make sure you leave lots of extra time to hang out with the TSA before your flight.

Traveling? Bring the Carry-On from Away

The carry-on from away
The Carry-On from Away

Still lugging around that outdated carry-on from 2006? It’s time for an upgrade. With 360° spinning wheels, a TSA-approved lock, a super hard exterior shell, and a USB-port for charging whatever it is you need charged, the Carry-On from Away is built to be your last.

Got a burning travel question you want to see answered in next month’s column? Do you vehemently disagree with my answers to this month’s questions? Comment below or send me an e-mail at editor@smartertravel.com with the subject line: Check Your Baggage.

Editor’s Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.

More from SmarterTravel

 

Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from around the world. 

Categories
Booking Strategy In-Flight Experience

Can You Bring Batteries on Planes?

In this month’s edition of our travel advice column, Check Your Baggage, we discuss who needs a second seat on an airplane. Also: airport changes, oxygen masks, bringing batteries on planes, and more.

Batteries on a Plane

Q. “Can I bring batteries on a plane?” —AP

A. Yes, you can bring batteries on planes, although how you pack them depends on the type of battery. The TSA’s “Can I Bring” search tool breaks it down for you: Dry batteries (your common household AA, AAA, C, and D batteries) are allowed in both carry-on and checked bags. Lithium batteries with 100 watt hours or less in a device are allowed in carry-on bags and checked bags, with some limits. Lithium batteries with more than 100 watt hours are only allowed in carry-on bags, under the same limits as above. Non-spillable wet batteries are allowed in carry-on bags with limits on quantity and size, and in checked bags with no restrictions. Spillable batteries are not allowed to be brought on the plane, except for those in wheelchairs.

Buying a Second Seat

Q. “What are the rules on size and weight before a heavy person needs to buy a second seat?” —EL

A. Rules for needing to purchase a second seat vary by airline; you can read our round-up of policies here.

As a general rule, most airlines require people who can’t fit in a single seat with the armrest down to buy a second seat, but enforcement is varied.

Airport Changes

Q. “Hi, I just read your column on flight changes. I have twice booked a flight out of San Francisco airport, and the flight was changed to depart from Oakland airport. I’ve had gate changes, flight changes, even terminal changes … but flying out of a different county? Alaska Air did this twice, and both times blamed FAA, and didn’t even offer a comp cocktail for the diversion and inconvenience. Is this common? Does a passenger have any recourse?” —JH

A. Good news: Changing the airport from which a flight departs falls under the Department of Transportation’s schedule change rule, which states “a passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight and the passenger chooses not to travel.”

If you don’t want to cancel your flight, you should be allowed to change to a different flight flying out of your originally scheduled airport, but you’ll need to call your airline to make the change.

As for your specific case, I reached out to Alaska Air and a representative responded: “Airport changes can happen, especially when Air Traffic Control (ATC) delays get severe. If a guest doesn’t want to travel from a newly-designated airport, we’ll work with them on new arrangements—and waive fees.” So you should be able to get on a new flight from your original airport without penalty.

[st_related]What Are the Rules Around Airline Flight Changes?[/st_related]

Dizziness After Disembarking

Q. “I took a flight recently and was terribly dizzy every time I moved my head or lay down afterwards. Can flying cause vertigo?” —CT

A. You know that feeling you get when the airplane is taking off or landing, when you feel like your ear needs to pop? That’s called barotrauma, and it happens when the air pressure in your middle ear and outside aren’t in equilibrium, which can cause pain, reduced hearing, or even vertigo. This sensation usually goes away once the plane levels out or lands; or you can yawn, chew gum, or pinch your nose while gently blowing with your mouth closed to help speed along the pressure equalization.

If you’re still dizzy after you land, you should go see a doctor, as rare, severe cases of barotrauma could require surgery.

When Do Oxygen Masks Deploy?

Q. “I watched the scary footage of the recent Hawaiian Airlines flight where smoke filled the cabin, but it didn’t look like the oxygen masks came down. Why not?” —MT

A. Although it would be terrifying to be stuck on a smoky plane, seeing the oxygen masks deploy in the midst of smoke might be scarier. Oxygen can accelerate fires, so according to a statement from Hawaiian Air, the crew didn’t want to add oxygen into the plane cabin if there was a fire causing the smoke.

[st_related]This Is the Safest Part of the Plane[/st_related]

In Search of Warm Weather

Q. “I’m not ready for cold weather yet. Where should I go in November that’s going to be warm?” —SC

A. November is the perfect time to get away somewhere warm—hurricane season is coming to a close in the Caribbean, shoulder season makes other not-yet-chilly destinations affordable, and school is back in session so you don’t have to fight with families for space on the beach. My recommendation? Buenos Aires, where average temperatures reach a comfortable high of 76 in November, the city is relatively empty, and the famous purple flowering trees are in bloom.

What to Wear on Your Next Flight

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

For more recommendations for where to go by month, check out our story The 12 Best Places to Travel in 2019.

Got a burning travel question you want to see answered in next month’s column? Do you vehemently disagree with my answers to this month’s questions? Comment below or send me an e-mail at editor@smartertravel.com with the subject line: Check Your Baggage.

Editor’s Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.

More from SmarterTravel:

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Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from around the world. 

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that oxygen is highly flammable. It has been corrected.

Categories
In-Flight Experience

What Are the Rules Around Airline Flight Changes?

What Are the Rules Around Airline Flight Changes?

Q. “What are my rights if my airline changes my departure time to one hour earlier? Can I reschedule my flight for free?”—GA
A. It’s super frustrating when an airline changes your flight time on you, but it can actually be a blessing in disguise. Most airlines allow you to change your flight for free if your schedule change is more than 60 minutes. You can typically change the time by up to a day, but you must keep the same cities/route. You can also generally cancel for free as well. So if you booked a red-eye flight because it was the cheapest thing available, you might be able to change to a more convenient time without paying extra.

[st_related]What Happens If Your Airline Changes Your Flight Times?[/st_related]

Aircraft Swaps

Q. “After I purchase my airfare and pay for seat selection, sometimes the airline changes the aircraft model. Now instead of an aisle seat, I may be in the middle. Why don’t airlines notify you when this happens when you have pre-purchased your seat? They should at least give you an identical seat not the same row/seat number. They do notify you if there are departure or arrival time changes.” —DMB

A. Aircraft swaps often happen on the same day as the flight due to issues such as maintenance or delays, or planes being grounded (like in the 737 MAX issue.) This doesn’t really give enough time to notify travelers and have them re-pick their seats. However, aircraft swaps do happen weeks or months out as well, so it’s best to check your booking regularly or at least right before your flight so you can make sure you’re in the seat you want. Don’t forget that airline letters aren’t the same on all planes—you could be in an A, C, D, G, H,or K seat and still be in an aisle, so check SeatGuru (our sister site) before you panic.

If you’ve paid for an aisle seat and get stuck in the middle, make sure to call your airline and request a refund for your seat selection fee.

Animals on a Plane

Q. “What are my legal rights around bringing my animal on a plane?” —CS

A. The only animals that are protected under law for travel are service animals. The Department of Justice only recognizes dogs, and, in some cases, miniature horses, as service animals under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). These animals must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability, and are legally allowed to go all places that people are allowed to go—including on an airplane.

Emotional support animals are not covered under the ADA, and airlines can require specific documentation proving that the animal is trained for emotional support (it’s illegal to ask for documentation for a service dog), and require 48 hours’ advance notice to accommodate one on a flight. Note, however, that new rules for service animals are on the way from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Airlines are never legally required to accept pets on board, so check with your individual airline on their pet policy before you fly.

[st_related]Flying with a Dog? Here’s What You Need to Know[/st_related]

Flying with Marijuana

Q. “Now that marijuana is legal in many states, can I fly with it? What if I’m traveling between states where it is legal, or with a medical marijuana prescription?” —SD

A. While recreational marijuana may be legal under state law, it’s still illegal under federal law (which governs air travel), so unfortunately, you’ll need to leave your marijuana at home. However, if you have a medication that contains a small amount of THC, you can legally fly with it under a recent TSA rule change. The new rule states: “Marijuana and certain cannabis infused products, including some Cannabidiol (CBD) oil, remain illegal under federal law except for products that contain no more than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis or that are approved by FDA. (See the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, Pub. L. 115-334.) TSA officers are required to report any suspected violations of law to local, state or federal authorities.”

The TSA also wants you to know that its job isn’t to harsh your buzz, but to keep you safe. According to the TSA, “TSA’s screening procedures are focused on security and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers. Accordingly, TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs, but if any illegal substance is discovered during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.”

Thunderstorms

Q. “Can planes fly in a thunderstorm?” –AP

A. Snow tends to get most of the press around flight delays, but thunderstorms make May, June, and July the peak time of year for delays.

Planes won’t land or take off during thunderstorms, but if you’re already airborne and bad weather strikes, don’t worry. Flights can safely fly above thunderstorms, and if that’s not possible, they will reroute to go around them.

Travel Pillows

Q. “What’s your favorite travel pillow?”—PA

A. I refuse to fly with a bulky travel pillow and so have ruled out memory foam and other non-inflatable varieties. My favorite so far is the Eagle Creek Exhale, because it has a clip that holds the front of the pillow together and prevents my head from falling through the gap.

[st_related]Editors’ Choice Awards: The Best New Travel Pillows[/st_related]

Got a burning travel question you want to see answered in next month’s column? Do you vehemently disagree with my answers to this month’s questions? Comment below or send me an e-mail at editor@smartertravel.com with the subject line: Check Your Baggage.

Editor’s Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.

What to Pack in Your Carry-On

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Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from around the world. 

Categories
Booking Strategy Entertainment In-Flight Experience Passenger Rights

Are Airlines Tracking Your Flight Search … and Raising Prices?

Let us investigate, in our advice column Check Your Baggage, whether or not searching for airfare makes the price go up. Also: perfume on a plane, tipping when gratuities are included, who can sit in an exit row, and more.

Are the Airlines Tracking My Flight Search?

Q. “My wife thinks that checking airfare on a certain site will somehow alert that airline and will drive the price up. So the more you look, the more the airline sees demand … and raises the prices. Is there any truth whatsoever to this?” —TJ

A. I’ve wondered this question myself, so I reached out to the airfare tracking experts at Airfarewatchdog, our sister site. The verdict? It’s an urban myth. Airfare Analyst Ricky Radka weighs in: “I literally look up airfare all day long and it stays the same—or sometimes goes down. What happens to make people think the airlines are tracking the search, is that the closer it gets to the departure date, the more people look—which is when airfare will increase.”

Hopefully that puts your wife’s mind at ease, and you can go back to arguing over where to fly to next rather than how often to check prices.

[st_related]10 Tips for Finding Cheap Airfare[/st_related]

Perfume on a Plane

Q. “I am really sensitive to strong perfumes/fragrances. So much so, they often trigger debilitating migraine headaches. Every so often, I get a seatmate who lacked restraint in applying their favorite scent. Because I travel frequently, I am often sitting in an upgraded seat (either comfort or first class). I know I have the option to ask for another seat, but I don’t want to go back to the main cabin. What options do I have that won’t put me in the back of the plane or embarrass the pungent passenger?” —RLC

A. This is a tough question, as you can’t exactly force your seatmate to quickly go shower. But even if the plane is full, or your only option is to move to an inferior seat, there are still a few things you can do. According to Dr. Alan Goldsobel, Fellow of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, “The first tenet in dealing with allergies and asthma is to decrease one’s exposure to allergens (i.e., a pet) or an irritant (i.e., perfume or strong odors). If they can’t change their seat or location, an N95 mask could help.

“Having rescue medication available is important, either a rescue asthma inhaler or an antihistamine oral medication. There are some prescription nasal sprays that work fairly quickly and could help. (The usual over-the-counter nasal sprays, such as fluticasone, don’t give much quick relief.) Also, antihistamine eye drops (over-the-counter or prescription) can be helpful.”

[st_related]What Are the Rules Around Airline Flight Changes?[/st_related]

Gratuities Included

Q. “Many all-inclusive resorts say ‘gratuities included.’ How much of what we pay to the resort actually goes towards gratuities to the employees who are providing day-to-day services to guests?” —JK

A. Tipping while traveling can already be confusing, so it’s tempting to take the “gratuities included” message at face value. But it is likely that employees are not receiving extra tips on top of their salary unless you’re giving them gratuities directly.

I reached out to a number of all-inclusive resorts, and most of them declined to discuss how the included gratuities are distributed. However, a representative for Club Med commented: “As part of the all-inclusive package, gratuities and taxes are already added to the set price of all Club Med vacations. The gratuities are built into each employee’s salary and pay, pending their role and level. Additional tipping is not required and is up to the discretion of the guest, but we find many guests tip additional amounts for select activities and services (i.e., the spa).”

So if you truly want to show appreciation for workers who’ve helped you to have an amazing vacation, you should pack some cash for your all-inclusive vacation—even if gratuities are technically included.

[st_related]Tipping: The Ultimate Guide to Tipping for Travelers[/st_related]

Who Can Sit in the Exit Row?

Q. “I was on a flight several months ago when a very obese (not large, obese) person sat in the exit row. I was alarmed and concerned that this person would not be capable of assistance during an emergency.

Many European airlines have weight restrictions regarding who can sit in an exit row. When will U.S. airlines do something similar?” —RG

A. It’s unfortunate that airlines now sell exit row seats as premium seating, as this can lead some people who shouldn’t be sitting in the exit row to book the space (and not want to move).

The FAA has an extensive list of the requirements a person must meet to sit in the exit row, including:

  • The ability to follow instructions given by a crewmember and impart those directions (in English) to other passengers
  • Sufficient mobility and strength to open the emergency exit (which weighs about 35-45 pounds)
  • Be 15 years of age or older

As to your specific question, some airlines, including Southwest and Alaska, have additional rules as to who may sit in an exit row—including a rule excluding passengers who require a seat belt extension.

However, it’s important to remember that you can’t judge a person’s strength or mobility simply by looking at them, so don’t immediately assume that the flyer you saw wasn’t capable of meeting the exit row requirements. Flight attendants are fully knowledgeable of the requirements for sitting in an exit row, and check the seats before takeoff to make sure that everything is in order.

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Free Checked Bags for Military?

Q. “I was told that some airlines let veterans check bags for free. Is this true?” – MS

A. Unfortunately, most airlines aren’t that nice, MS. I only found one airline, Allegiant, that offers free checked bags to military veterans. (Allegiant has some pretty great perks for veterans and active duty military—click here to see the full list.) The rest of the major airlines in the U.S. all offer free checked bags to active duty military only. It varies by airline if the perk is offered for personal travel, or only to those traveling on orders.

[st_related]Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide[/st_related]

Buying an Extra Seat

Q. “My husband is a pretty big guy and is very uncomfortable in tiny plane seats. On our last flight [with United], I paid for an additional seat. At the last minute, the airline sold the “empty” seat to a stand-by passenger. Did we have any recourse at all?” —SW

A. Seats shouldn’t be given away, but it definitely happens in this era of oversold flights. I reached out to United to find out what happened. According to a spokesperson for the airline, when you buy an extra seat, you should make sure that you receive two boarding passes. When you are boarding the plane, make sure you scan both passes—otherwise the system will show one of the seats as a no-show, and could be given away to a standby passenger.

If your seat is accidentally given away, or another passenger decides to re-seat themselves there, you should talk to a flight attendant to let them know that both seats were purchased and are already taken.

Got a burning travel question you want to see answered in next month’s column? Do you vehemently disagree with my answers to this month’s questions? Comment below or send me an e-mail at editor@smartertravel.com with the subject line: Check Your Baggage.

Editor’s Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.

What to Wear on Your Flight

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:

Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from around the world. 

Categories
Booking Strategy In-Flight Experience Passenger Rights Travel Etiquette

Are These Flyers Abusing the Southwest Seating Policy?

In this month’s edition of our travel advice column, we discuss Southwest’s open seating policy. Plus: what to do if your personal space is being violated on a plane, service animals, and whether you have to close the window shade upon request.

Saving Seats on Southwest

Q. My question is about flying and it’s a problem several of our friends and family have encountered recently. It regards Southwest Airlines’ Free for All boarding. My husband and I pay the extra money for the advance check-in so we can board at least somewhat earlier than others. The problem is with people who are traveling in a group who designate one or two of them who also pay the extra money and board early, but then save multiple seats for their companions who didn’t pay the extra and board later. Last time we flew Southwest, two people had saved almost a dozen seats. It’s unfair to people like us who paid extra to board earlier to get our desired seat and also it’s unfair to those people who went to the trouble of checking in exactly 24 hours ahead. I was tempted to toss the stuff off the seat and sit down but didn’t want to sit next to some angry troll for the entire flight. Since it’s a problem that Southwest seems to be ignoring, what else can we do besides choosing to fly another airline?  That’s been our first option, but sometimes it’s not possible.—JF

A. JF, you are not alone in your frustration over this abuse of the Southwest seating policy. There are pages dedicated to flyers complaining about this issue on Southwest’s message board. I reached out to Southwest and asked if saving seats was allowed, and Ro Hawthorne, one of the airlines’ spokespeople, responded: “Our policy is open seating. … Above all, we ask our employees and customers to practice common sense, good judgment, and to be civil toward each other.”

If you’ve flown at all recently, you won’t be surprised to see that common sense and civility seem to have been left on the ground at the airport, and people are prepared to fight over open seats. The official response from Southwest’s team is that they “trust passengers to work out seating arrangements among themselves,” which seems like a stressful solution to me.

I agree with you that voting with your dollars is the best solution here, and choosing to fly an airline with assigned seats when you’re able to makes the most sense, as, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a policy against saving seats on Southwest. When flying another airline isn’t possible, there’s always the option that some people on the community forum suggested—paying to board first, saving a bunch of seats, and selling them to people boarding later. (Just kidding. Please be a decent human and don’t do this.) Otherwise, it seems like your only option to ensure a good seat on Southwest is to pay between $30 and $50 each way to get into the first boarding group, and then get to the airport early to line up within that group. If a decent seat is important to you, make sure you factor that cost into the price when you’re comparing tickets across airlines.

[st_related]Southwest Airlines Perks You Probably Don’t Know About[/st_related]

Sitting Next to a Service Animal

Q. What is the airline requirement about having to sit next to a service animal? They are becoming very common and I wonder if all of them are legitimate. I really do not want to sit next to someone’s dog while I eat my turkey sandwich or sleep with it inches away from me. Does a regular passenger have any right to be notified ahead of time that they will be sitting next to a service animal?—CO

A. It would be even more awkward if you were eating a turkey sandwich next to an emotional support turkey, but I get your point. Airlines have been recently cracking down on fake service animals, so it’s likely that the animal you’d be seated near is there for a serious, legitimate purpose. Fortunately, service animals are required to be well behaved, and according to the Department of Transportation (DOT), airlines don’t have to accept service animals that are unruly or disruptive (including barking or jumping on other passengers), too large/heavy to fit on the floor in front of their owner, or not a legitimate type of service animal (snakes, reptiles, ferrets, rodents, sugar gliders, and spiders can all be legally turned away by airlines).

There are different rules regarding service animals (those that have been specifically trained to perform essential duties such as guiding the blind or giving warning for seizures) and emotional support animals (those providing comfort for emotional disabilities). For service animals, the passenger does not always have to notify the airline ahead of time, and so there’s no way for you to be given a heads up that you’ll be seated by an animal. Passengers bringing an emotional support animal are usually required to give notice to the airline, but the airline still won’t notify the people seated around the animal.

It’s worth noting that most airlines don’t allow service or emotional support animals to sit in an emergency exit row, so you might want to shell out the extra money to book a seat there. Otherwise, you can ask a flight attendant to move you to a new seat—even if the plane is full, some people might jump at the chance to sit next to an adorable animal. Airlines will work to move a passenger with an allergy or phobia, or accommodate them on a later flight if necessary.

[st_related]10 In-Flight Essentials You Should Never Travel Without[/st_related]

Seat Encroachment

Q. I was recently seated next to a larger person whose body overhung the armrest and crowded me. It was horrible! The plane was full and there was nowhere to go, and I am sure nobody would have consented to change seats anyway, when they saw the situation. What are my rights in this situation?—RG

A. Airline seats are getting smaller, and that’s no fun for flyers of any size. Most airlines require that passengers who can’t fit into a single seat buy an extra seat (or pay to upgrade to a larger seat). Click here to see our list of passenger of size policies for most airlines.

If you do find that someone is encroaching upon your space, the best course of action is to discreetly speak to a flight attendant before takeoff to see if you can be moved. Remember to be polite and to spare a thought for the feelings of your seatmate—being kind doesn’t hurt and might score you a better outcome with a seat change. If the flight is full and you can’t be moved, try sending the airline a written complaint after your flight. You may be eligible for some form of compensation, which should take a bit of the sting out of having to share part of your seat.

[st_related]The Worst Seats on a Plane (and How to Avoid Them)[/st_related]

Window Shade Wars

Q. Twice I have been on flights from Europe to the U.S. where I booked a window seat in first class. The flights left Europe mid-morning. I enjoy looking out of the window during flights, even if we are over the ocean or it is cloudy. On both of these flights a flight attendant came by and asked me to close the shade because someone on the plane had complained (one of the complaints was from someone on the opposite side of the plane). What are my rights? If I didn’t want to look out, I wouldn’t book a window seat.—JG

A. Window shades are a bit like the recline function on your seat—your comfort might come at the expense of another passenger, but it’s a built-in feature on a plane and there are no rules against using it (aside from during takeoff and landing, due to safety regulations). A polite conversation can go a long way in finding the solution to the up-or-down window shade tug-of-war. Offer to pull the shade down part way to reduce glare and explain that looking out the window is enjoyable for you, and you may be able to find a compromise. If you’re really committed, try packing a cheap eye mask to offer to anyone who’s bothered by the open window while trying to sleep.

[st_related]Can a Flight Attendant Force You to Close the Window Shade?[/st_related]

Got a burning travel question you want to see answered in next month’s column? Do you vehemently disagree with my answers to this month’s questions? Comment below or send me an e-mail at editor@smartertravel.com with the subject line: Check Your Baggage.

Editor’s Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.

What to Wear on Your Flight

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:

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Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from around the world. 

Categories
Travel Etiquette

Do You Have to Switch Seats If Someone Asks?

Welcome to our new travel advice column, Check Your Baggage! This month, we tackle the eternal dilemma: Do you have to swap seats if someone asks you to? Plus, what’s the most polite way to deal with a chatty seatmate, and are there rules for reclining your seat?

Do I Have to Switch Seats if Someone Asks?

Q: I set an alarm to log onto my airline’s website at the exact time that check-in opened. I paid extra to select my preferred seat. But when I boarded the plane, someone was in my seat and asked me to swap so that they could sit next to their travel companion. I felt pressured to say yes. What should I have done? –Julianna, Minneapolis, MN

A: You aren’t obligated to give up your seat or make any accommodations for this passenger if you have your seat assignment and ticket in hand, unless it’s a flight attendant telling you that you must move, in which case comply and complain to the airline later in order to avoid being dragged off the plane.

Even if you feel like being a good person, don’t agree to anything until you check out where the replacement seat is located. My stance is that the person looking to swap should always offer a seat change of greater or equal value to the person they want to switch with.

For example, if a couple is seated in two window seats and they want to be together, they should trade one of their window seats for a middle seat. If someone is asking you to switch your emergency exit row aisle seat for their back-of-the-plane middle seat, you can decline without feeling guilty. Simply explain that you selected the seat during the booking process and would prefer to keep it. Be polite but firm. You don’t owe any further explanation for your decision.

[st_related]The 15 Items You Need to Survive a Long-Haul Flight[/st_related]

Is it Really That Bad to Recline Your Seat?

Q: How much does the person behind me hate me when I recline my seat? –Marc, Las Cruces, NM

A: The answer to this question really depends on how you do it. If you’re violently pushing your seat as far back as it will go before takeoff on a 90-minute flight, the person behind you is going to hate you and laugh at you when the flight attendant makes you put it upright before takeoff.

If it’s a long-haul flight and you’ve waited until after meal service, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll be reclining. You’ll get bonus good flyer points if you give a quick courtesy glance behind you to make sure you’re not about to send your seatback into a really tall person’s knees or smash into a drink.

[st_related]7 Expert Airplane Seat Hacks to Boost Comfort on Long Flights[/st_related]

Chatty Seatmates

Q: When I fly, I board with my noise-cancelling headphones on and immediately open up a book or close my eyes. But sometimes, I still get seatmates wanting to talk to me. How do I get them to stop without making them angry? –Jimena, El Paso, TX

A: Dealing with a chatty seatmate is a delicate balance. You don’t want to be stuck next to a person silently seething at you for being rude for the next nine hours, but you also don’t want to be dragged into a conversation with no escape route.

Signals like headphones and books are a good start, but persistent chatters won’t be deterred. To avoid looking rude, it’s always nice to answer their first question or two, and then politely let them know that you need to get some work done/are super excited to watch your movie/just took a bunch of sleeping pills and will be passing out now.

[st_related]10 In-Flight Essentials You Should Never Travel Without[/st_related]

Got a burning travel question you want to see answered in next month’s column? Do you vehemently disagree with my answers to this month’s questions? Comment below or send me an e-mail.

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from around the world.