Airport Booking Strategy Budget Travel In-Flight Experience

11 Ways to Upgrade Your Next Trip for $100 or Less

Maybe you can’t afford to fly in first class or stay in a luxury hotel, but that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in a travel upgrade or two on your next trip. Make your trip a little more comfortable by treating yourself to one of these affordable luxuries for $100 or less.

Expedited Screening and Reentry

Person going through tsa precheck line

One travel upgrade that always feels indulgent is strolling right past those tedious lines at the airport. Global Entry membership costs $100 for five years and entitles you to expedited reentry to the U.S. after international trips. Instead of standing in line at customs along with hundreds of other people after a long-haul international flight, simply enter your passport into a kiosk, offer your fingerprints, tap the screen to answer a few questions, and get on with your day. Global Entry members also get TSA PreCheck membership.

A slightly cheaper alternative is to get PreCheck alone ($85 for five years) and use the free Mobile Passport app for expedited reentry. Note, however, that Mobile Passport is available at fewer U.S. airports than Global Entry.

Skip-the-Line Tickets

Speaking of skipping long lines, why not do the same at popular tourist attractions? You could easily waste an hour or more of your vacation waiting to get into places like the London Eye, Vatican Museums, or Empire State Building if you don’t buy your ticket in advance. In many cases you can purchase tickets online at the attraction’s website. Alternatively, check out SmarterTravel’s sister site, Viator, for skip-the-line tickets that often include other extras such as guided tours or early access.

[st_related]6 Ways to Skip the Line at Tourist Attractions[/st_related]

Airport Lounge Pass

Between the free drinks and snacks and the quiet atmosphere, an airport lounge can be an oasis in the heart of a busy, noisy airport. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a first-class passenger or an elite flyer to get in. Many U.S. airlines sell day passes to their lounges for $50 to $60—or you can purchase passes for hundreds of lounges around the world through Lounge Pass. Prices vary but usually range from $30 to $60.

To learn more, see these seven ways to score airport lounge access.

Credit Cards with Perks

marriot bold and bonvoy, hilton credit cards

Carrying the right credit card can entitle you to a number of travel perks, and you don’t have to pay a hefty annual fee to get them. For example, the United Explorer Card entitles you to priority boarding, two passes into the United Club airport lounge, a free checked bag, and $100 toward Global Entry or TSA PreCheck; the $95 annual fee is waived in your first year as a cardholder.

Opt for the Bold (no annual fee) or Boundless ($95 annual fee) card from Marriott Bonvoy and you’ll get automatic Silver Elite status, with perks such as priority late checkout, free Wi-Fi, and keyless room access using your phone.

Prefer Hilton? Try the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass Card, which offers benefits such as 10 free airport lounge visits via Priority Pass and a free weekend night when you spend at least $15,000 in a calendar year. You’ll also enjoy late checkout, complimentary breakfast at all hotels, and other perks of Hilton Honors Gold status.

To learn more about travel credit cards, see Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site.

[st_related]7 Secret Travel Perks Your Credit Card Might Already Have[/st_related]

Curbside Check-in

Instead of fumbling with an airline kiosk and waiting in line to drop off your checked bag, use your airline’s curbside check-in service to hand over your suitcase to a friendly skycap as soon as you step out of your car. The cost is usually a gratuity and perhaps a small per-bag fee.

[st_related]Curbside Check-in: The Best Airport Perk You’re Not Using[/st_related]

Airport Chair Massage

chair massage in singapore airport

You may not have the time or money for a full-length massage between flights, but many airports have mini-spas where you can enjoy an affordable 10- to 20-minute treatment to work out the kinks in your neck, shoulders, hands, or feet.

In-Flight Comforts

While nothing can make a coach-class seat truly comfortable, bringing a few key in-flight accessories can help you create your own mini travel upgrade. Skip the thin, dubiously clean airplane blanket and bring a softer option instead, along with a silk eye mask to help you block out harsh overhead lights and flickering screens.

If you can’t afford Bose’s pricey noise-canceling headphones, consider cheaper options from Linner or Cowin.

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

In-Room Comforts

Just as you’d upgrade your airplane seat with a few accessories to maximize comfort, you can do the same in your hotel room. For example, a white noise machine can help you sleep more soundly by blocking out noises from neighboring rooms, and a pillow spray can cover up any lingering odors from harsh cleaning supplies. For more ideas, see these nine ways to make your hotel room more comfortable.

A Better Airplane Seat

airplane seats exit row

Don’t just settle for any old economy seat. When you check in for your flight, take a look at your options on the seating chart and see if you can buy your way into a better spot. While a travel upgrade budget of $100 isn’t likely to get you into first or business class, you may be able to land an exit row seat with bonus legroom, or a window or aisle seat right near the front of the economy cabin. On shorter flights, you might even be able to upgrade to premium economy for $100 or less.

[st_related]10 Ways to Get the Best Airplane Seat[/st_related]

Breakfast in Bed

Sure, it’s a little overpriced, but there’s nothing like room service for getting a vacation day off to a lazy and relaxing start—especially on the first full day of your trip, when you’re still tired and jet lagged from your flight. Order some coffee and your meal of choice, and enjoy them in your pajamas from the comfort of your hotel bed.

A Vacation Rental Instead of a Hotel Room

In many parts of the world, you can get a lot more space for the same price as a hotel room by booking a rental apartment or home instead. Vacation rentals are a particularly good deal for families and groups who want to share a space—including kitchen and laundry facilities—rather than book multiple hotel rooms. Find properties on TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company), Airbnb, HomeAway, and other vacation rental sites.

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

Booking Strategy Business Travel Passenger Rights Senior Travel Solo Travel Student Travel

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


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


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.

[st_related]8 Neck Pillows That Won’t Embarrass You on the Plane [/st_related]

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.

[st_related]Heading to the Airport? Use This Pre-Flight Checklist [/st_related]

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.

[st_related]The 15 Best Airplane Books for Long Flights [/st_related]

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.

[st_related]10 Tasty Snacks You Can Bring on the Plane [/st_related]

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.

Budget Travel Packing

9 Best Basic Economy Personal Items to Hold All Your Stuff

So, you got a great deal on a basic economy ticket, but how are you going to fit everything you need into your personal item? Basic economy fares are great, but even for the most minimalist travelers, the luggage restriction (one item that fits under your seat; no overhead bin access allowed) can be daunting. If you’re flying basic economy, your personal item is all you’ve got, so you better make sure it can hold everything you need.

A personal item can be as large as the space under the seat in front of you and on various airlines, the length of your bag can be anywhere between 17 and 20 inches. Here are some great soft-sided bags that can help you maximize the power of your personal item on your next basic economy flight.

[st_related]Carry-on and Personal Item Size Limits for 30 Major Airlines[/st_related]

Fjallraven Greenland Zip Large

One of the larger bags available from this popular brand, the Fjallraven Greenland Zip Large is a hip choice made of sturdy weather-resistant fabric. With a 15-inch padded laptop sleeve, a spacious interior, and a large front pocket, this is a great personal item to make the most of your basic economy ticket.

 Nixon Decoy Tote Bag

To maximize space, skip the day bag and go for a tote like the Nixon Decoy. This is a personal-item that’s large enough to hold everything you could need, but malleable enough to be squeezed under the seat in front of you. With multiple straps, including a padded shoulder strap, plus a 17-inch laptop sleeve, this is a personal item that means business.

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Pacsafe Stylesafe Anti-Theft Tote

If you’d like more ways to organize your basic economy personal item, the Stylesafe Anti-Theft Tote from Pacsafe is a great choice. With theft-deterring zippers, multiple exterior pockets, and a spacious interior, this is a great tote for a short but busy trip.

 Nike Brasilia XL Backpack

If you’d like a personal item that’s not too cumbersome, the Nike Brasilia XL Backpack is a solid and sporting choice. With one front pocket for organizing small objects plus a spacious main compartment to hold your clothes, it’s easy to make the most in basic economy with this personal item.

Sherpani Fen

Need a personal item with style to last you for your whole trip? The cute and functional Sherpani Fen is a deep and roomy tote bag with a long vertical shape. This convertible bag can be worn as a backpack or used as a tote bag and has plenty of pockets to keep you organized.

 Herschel Supply Co. Little America

At 20 inches long, the Little America from Herschel Supply Co. is a backpack that’s pushing the limits, but is still flexible enough to fit under the seat in front of you. Available in multiple colors and patterns, it’s easy to find one to best fit your style.

The North Face Borealis

The North Face Borealis is a backpack you can take with you from the plane to the trail, with a wide interior compartment and plenty of comfort features like back-panel padding and mesh straps. This is a great choice of personal item if you’re planning on using it throughout your trip.

Chrome Summoner Pack

If you plan on living out of your personal item for a longer period of time, the Chrome Summoner Pack is one of the most suitcase-like backpacks on the market. With front-access pocket design, you can make the most of this super-spacious personal item. 

Topo Designs Daypack

With a fun design and classic shape, the Topo Design Daypack is a solid choice for a basic economy personal item. It can hold a large laptop and has room to fit enough clothes for a short trip.

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This story was developed in partnership with Zappos. If you buy something through our links, SmarterTravel may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you.

Health & Wellness

9 Ways to Make Long Train Rides More Comfortable

When it comes to comfort, most travelers would pick trains over planes any day. Train cars usually offer more leg and elbow room than airplane cabins, there are no seatbelt signs to keep you from getting up and moving around, and the slower pace of travel makes time zone changes less taxing. And yet, being stuck in a seat for hours on end means long train rides can still be tough on the body and mind.

[st_content_ad]From seat recommendations to advice on what to pack for train travel, the following tips will help make your next long rail journey easier and more comfortable.

Spring for an Upgrade

If budget and availability allow, upgrading your seat is perhaps the most important thing you can do to make a long train ride more comfortable. That might mean booking a sleeper cabin instead of a seat so you can lie down on overnight rides, or a first- or business-class seat instead of a spot in coach to land yourself more legroom, a footrest, and greater recline.

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Choose the Right Seat

Window seats on planes are popular with travelers who like to enjoy the views and/or have something to lean on, and window seats on trains have the same appeal—if not more so, since you’re even more likely to have scenery worth seeing out the windows of a train.

Many trains have both front- and rear-facing seats; if you’re prone to motion sickness, snag one of the former so you can see where you’re going.

Pack Props

Let’s face it: A standard train seat may be comfortable for some, but it won’t suit passengers of every size and height. Got short legs? Consider bringing an inflatable footrest so your feet aren’t dangling the whole journey. Suffer from lower back or tailbone problems? Pack an inflatable seat cushion to take pressure off your spine on long train rides, or a lumbar support pillow to prevent lower back pain after prolonged sitting.

If you’re planning on trying to sleep in your seat, bring a cozy microfiber blanket and your travel pillow of choice.

[st_related]10 Best Inflatable Travel Pillows[/st_related]

Bring Your Own Entertainment

A tablet stocked with books, movies, and music can be a lifesaver on long train rides, but you’ll need a plan for keeping it charged. Some trains have power ports at every seat; make sure you have the right adapter for your charger if you’re traveling in a foreign country. On trains without power outlets, consider bringing a portable charger to keep your devices running longer.

Consider bringing along some low-tech forms of entertainment, too, like travel games or even a simple pack of cards.

Wear Comfortable Clothes

When deciding what to pack for train travel, comfy clothes should be at the top of your list. This is not the time to pack your tightest skinny jeans or your highest heels; instead, opt for clothes with a relaxed fit that are made with soft, stretchy fabrics. Options include ultra-stretch chinos for men, high-rise black leggings for women, and slippers for those late-night trips to the bathroom on an overnight train.

It’s always a good idea to wear layers in case the temperature on the train is too hot or cold for your taste.

[st_related]Ridiculously Comfortable Travel Clothes That Don’t Sacrifice Style[/st_related]

Block Out the World

Part of the appeal of traveling by train is watching a variety of landscapes slip by outside your window, but once darkness falls—or if you simply need a nap—you might want to block out your surroundings for a while.

A luxurious silk sleep mask and a set of ear plugs can shield you from harsh overhead lights and the chatter of fellow passengers. Noise-canceling headphones are a good option if you like to fall asleep to music.

[st_related]How to Book Train Travel in Europe: 12 Essential Sites[/st_related]

Choose the Right Bags

One of the best things about traveling by train is that the luggage restrictions are typically less onerous than those of the airlines. Amtrak, for example, allows each passenger two personal items, two carry-on items, and two checked bags—for free.

The good news is that you don’t have to try to fit a week’s worth of clothes into a bag the size of your kid’s school backpack in order to avoid fees. The bad news is that you still have to lug your stuff through the train station and sometimes (depending on the train) heave it into an overhead luggage rack—so it still behooves you to pack relatively light. This 20-inch carry-on weighs just five pounds and is easy to lift onto luggage racks and maneuver down narrow train aisles.

Because larger suitcases may be stowed in an inaccessible part of the train, you’ll want to have a smaller bag to keep near your seat with valuable items such as gadgets, travel documents, your wallet, and medications. Consider a tote bag or day pack for this purpose.

[st_related]14 Travel Totes That Do the Most[/st_related]

Bring Your Own Snacks

Some upscale long-haul trains serve gourmet feasts on white tablecloths with real silverware—but if you’ll be taking a not-so-luxe train, your options might be significantly less appetizing (think salty convenience foods and overpriced snacks). That’s why you might want to stock up on your own favorite eats.

Fortunately, the airlines’ 3-1-1 rules for liquids and gels don’t apply on trains, so you can bring items like yogurt or veggies with hummus, stored in a small travel cooler. Tasty, healthy options that don’t require refrigeration include nuts, granola bars, fruit, and trail mix. Prefill a reusable water bottle to save yourself money on drinks.

[st_related]10 Tasty Carry-on Snacks You Can Make Yourself[/st_related]

Freshen Up

After a long day or night on a train, freshening up a little can help you feel cleaner and less rumpled. Give your face a quick wipe-down with a water-free cleansing cloth, get the sour taste out of your mouth with a spray of Listerine Pocketmist, and kill off any germs you picked up from your armrests with a squirt of antibacterial hand gel. And having some travel-size deodorant on hand is never a bad idea.

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

Booking Strategy In-Flight Experience Passenger Rights

This Airline Just Made Its Economy Seats Bigger

It’s not exactly news when one of the big three airlines does something to make its economy seats worse, but it is when one actually makes them better. Kudos to Delta for its newly refurbished Boeing 777-200s, which feature fewer economy seats per row to maintain some elbow room.

[st_related] Is the World Ready for These Stand-Up Airline ‘Seats’?[/st_related]

Delta is keeping regular economy seats at nine-across rather than the 10-across that has become almost the norm for 777s on other airlines. As a result, these planes will have the widest regular economy seats in the business, along with the few other airlines that keep their economy seats nine-across. Delta’s 777 economy seats will be 18.5 inches wide, compared to the 17-inch width on American and United’s 777s.

These planes will also have Delta’s new business class “suite” seating, in addition to a new true premium economy cabin called Premium Select. Delta expects to have the refurbishment completely rolled out by the end of 2019. If you’re looking for Delta’s new premium economy, you’ll find it on all 350s and on an increasing number of 777s.

If you’re in regular economy like the rest of us, though, you can bet on better-than-average seats in Delta’s 777s.

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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.

Booking Strategy Budget Travel In-Flight Experience

Survey Confirms That Coach Seating Sucks

Consumer Reports is in the business of rating and ranking everything, from refrigerators to running shoes. In a shift from its normal product-review routine, where the publication’s in-house experts do the testing and comparisons, Consumer Reports turned to its readers for a review of U.S. airlines.

The publication queried 55,000 travelers on a range of factors, including service, legroom, seating comfort, pricing transparency, Wi-Fi connectivity, and cabin cleanliness, and ranked the 11 U.S. airlines accordingly. To keep it apples-to-apples, the results for coach were kept separate from the results for first and business.

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For coach class, the airlines scored as follows (ratings based on a scale of 1-100):

  • Southwest – 85
  • Alaska – 84
  • JetBlue – 83
  • Virgin America – 83
  • Hawaiian – 80
  • Delta – 75
  • Allegiant – 70
  • American – 68
  • United – 67
  • Frontier – 63
  • Spirit – 62

For coach customers, Southwest delivered the best overall experience. But only one airline was rated anything but “poor” for seating comfort or legroom. JetBlue was graded “fair” on both counts.

That isn’t likely to improve anytime soon, as travelers continue to snap up coach seats based on price, and the airlines continue to squeeze ever more seats into the coach cabins.

Only five carriers were rated for their premium service, as follows:

  • Hawaiian – 89
  • Alaska – 89
  • Delta – 85
  • American – 80
  • United – 79

Again, the big three so-called full-service airlines—American, Delta, United—were among the poorest performers. Proving, perhaps, the futility of trying to be all things to all people.

Reader Reality Check

Will the airlines ever improve their coach product?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Booking Strategy Business Travel Frequent Flyer Health & Wellness In-Flight Experience Travel Trends

Recap: The Week’s Biggest Travel Stories and Best Deals

Following is our regular summary of the latest travel news and best frequent traveler promotions reviewed during the past week.

[st_content_ad]If it was a good deal—or a notably bad deal—from an airline, hotel, or car rental loyalty program, you can read all about it here, and plan your travel accordingly.

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American Will Launch New York-Chicago Shuttle Service in April

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Alaska Air, United Will Launch Flights from 2nd Seattle Airport

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Upcoming Hilton Honors Changes Are Good for the Few, Bad for the Many

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Should Airlines Get Rid of Reclining Seats? This One Is

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Prize includes airfare, hotel, dinner, and a Mark & Graham travel bag.

Somebody has to win this trip, right? Might as well be you.

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Booking Strategy Budget Travel Food & Drink Frequent Flyer Travel Trends

Recap: The Week’s Biggest Travel Stories and Best Deals

Following is our regular summary of the latest travel news and best frequent traveler promotions reviewed during the past week.

If it was a good deal—or a notably bad deal—from an airline, hotel, or car rental loyalty program, you can read all about it here, and plan your travel accordingly.

This Is the New ‘Best Airline’ According to Savvy Travelers

Here are the world’s 20 best airlines, according to feedback from 300,000 travelers.

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Earn a $100 Gift Card After 2 InterContinental Hotel Stays, Plus Bonus Points

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Free Companion Pass Makes Southwest Credit Card Offer the Best Ever

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Gate Service Fees: Another Basic Economy Caveat

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Win 1 Million Hertz Gold Plus Rewards Points (Value: $61,300)

Runner-up prizes, like free weekend rentals, are none too shabby either. You can’t win if you don’t play.

Somebody has to win this, right? Might as well be you.

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Booking Strategy In-Flight Experience Travel Trends

This Is the New ‘Best Airline’ According to Savvy Travelers

Every year, Conde Nast Traveler gets a lot of mileage out of its Readers’ Choice Awards, slicing and dicing feedback from 300,000 travelers into a dizzying array of categories, sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories. Not only is there a ranking of the best cities in the world, there’s also a list of the best small cities in the U.S. The world’s best hotels are named, sure. But also the top 10 hotels in Europe, and in Northern Asia, and in Eastern Mexico, and in Florence.

[st_content_ad]Let’s go right to the top of the taxonomic pyramid and see what the publication’s readers had to say about airlines, and not just regional airlines based east of the Mississippi with name begins with ‘S.’ We’re interested in the best of the best, no qualifiers: The World’s Best Airlines.

[st_related]Low Fare Alert: Southwest Will Fly to Hawaii in 2018[/st_related]

According to the travel-savvy group that comprises Conde Nast’s survey base, the world’s 20 best are as follows:

  1. Air New Zealand
  2. Qatar Airways
  3. Singapore Airlines
  4. Emirates
  5. Swiss
  6. Virgin Australia
  7. Virgin Atlantic
  8. Asiana
  9. Aegean
  10. Cathay Pacific
  11. Korean Air
  12. Qantas
  13. All Nippon Airways (ANA)
  14. Finnair
  15. Turkish Airlines
  16. Etihad
  17. Japan Airlines
  18. EVA Air
  19. Lufthansa
  20. KLM

And in the Best U.S. Airline category, readers voted as follows:

  1. Virgin America
  2. JetBlue
  3. Alaska Airlines
  4. Hawaiian Airlines
  5. Sun Country

There are no great surprises in the results of either ranking, although Singapore’s fall from its longtime perch atop the list is a reminder that airlines can’t rest on their laurels. The dominance of Asian and Middle Eastern carriers is the continuation of two established trends, the former of long standing, the latter more recent. If anything stood out from the results, it was the appearance on the World’s Best list of Aegean, the smallish Greek carrier. Among the domestic airlines, the only significant change was Southwest’s replacement in the fifth spot by Sun Country, the Minneapolis-based leisure carrier.

Reader Reality Check

How do Conde Nast’s readers’ ratings compare with your own?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

Booking Strategy In-Flight Experience Travel Trends

JetBlue Preview: More Seats, Less Legroom

JetBlue has been claiming for itself the title of the airline with “the most legroom in coach” for years. With most airlines adding seats and in the process reducing legroom, it’s a claim that resonates powerfully with flyers put off by other airlines’ crusher seats, some with just 28 inches of pitch (the industry-standard measure of distance between seats).

JetBlue Reduces Legroom

[st_content_ad]As the average pitch has declined to between 31 and 32 inches, the competitive pressure on JetBlue to maintain its industry-leading 34-inch pitch has diminished. Why bother giving customers two extra inches of legroom when the “most legroom” claim remains valid even when JetBlue’s space advantage is just an inch, or even less?

You can see where this is headed, right? Why not reduce JetBlue’s seat pitch just enough to maintain the competitive advantage, while adding more seats and increasing the potential revenue-per-flight? That question, when posed by JetBlue shareholders and marketing executives, leads inevitably to doing just that, never mind the wants and needs of another stakeholder group, the airline’s customers.

[st_related]FAA Will Consider Legroom Minimum for Coach Seats [/st_related]

And so, yes, according to Bloomberg, JetBlue will soon begin a three-year retrofit of its A320 planes that includes the addition of 12 extra seats, upping the capacity from 150 to 162 paying passengers. JetBlue has boasted to investors that the resulting additional passenger revenue will generate $100 million in financial benefits for the company.

That revenue gain comes at the expense of passenger comfort. Squeezing in the new seats will reduce pitch by two inches, to 32 inches. Which is, not coincidentally, just the amount JetBlue needs to continue claiming it offers the most legroom in coach.

In addition to the most-legroom claim, JetBlue will be touting the planes’ 10-inch touchscreen inflight entertainment systems, more customizable mood lighting, and larger overhead bins. But those are sideshows. Center stage will be the seats, and JetBlue’s decision to sacrifice customer comfort for increased profits and share price.

No surprise there—it’s a story as old as commerce itself. But for JetBlue loyalists who believed the airline was at least slightly more customer-focused than its competitors, the loss of legroom can only rankle. Unless they also happen to be JetBlue stockholders.

Reader Reality Check

How important is legroom to you when choosing an airline?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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American or Southwest: Which Is the No-Frills Airline?

One airplane (B737 MAX), two airlines (American, Southwest), and a question of identity (which airline is really no-frills?).

The plane in question is Boeing’s B737, the workhorse of the commercial airline business since 1968. It’s the most popular aircraft ever produced, and will remain so for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding competition from the Airbus A320 line of jets.

If you’ve ever flown, you’ve likely flown on one of the many variants of the B737 produced over the years. While the plane’s fuselage diameter has remained constant over the past 50 years, it has been lengthened numerous times. The design of the cockpit and the wing have been modernized. The engines have been upgraded to more fuel-efficient models. The cabins and seating have been periodically refreshed.

[st_related]You Have to Shop to Travel. Do You Also Travel to Shop?[/st_related]

As of August, 9,659 B737s had been delivered, and orders for 4,427 more B737s were on the books. Among the buyers of the newest-generation planes, the 737 MAX, are American and Southwest.

The Seat-of-the-Pants Difference

While nominally for the same plane, the American and Southwest orders differ in a way that’s profoundly significant to flyers. And that difference plays havoc with our increasingly tenuous notions of the differences between so-called “full service” and “low fare” airlines.

American has ordered 100 737 MAXs, four of which will be in service by the end of 2017. Unlike American’s current B737s, which feature 31 inches of pitch (the distance between seats, a measure of legroom), the seat pitch on their new MAXs will be just 30 inches. (American had considered fitting the new planes with three rows of seats with just 29 inches of pitch, but jettisoned that plan in response to fierce blowback from travelers and the media.)

For its part, Southwest has ordered 150 737 MAXs, 17 of which will be operating by the end of this year. In stark contrast to the 30-inch-pitch seating on American’s MAXs, Southwest’s MAX seating will feature 32-inch pitch.

So, is 32- versus 30-inch seat pitch a distinction without a difference? Hardly. From a comfort standpoint, it’s a real difference-maker. And the longer the flight, the bigger the difference. If legroom matters, then you’re better off booking Southwest on any flights where American operates the same plane, assuming comparable airfares.

That calls for a reassessment of many travelers’ long-held assumptions. Southwest is supposed to be cheaper than American (although it’s not always). And the so-called low-cost carrier is justly lauded for its no-fees policies. But since when is Southwest more comfortable than American? The answer: At least since the two airlines purchased the same plane, with more and less comfortable seats.

Reader Reality Check

When you think of American and Southwest, which would you assume offers the most comfortable seating?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


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Most Travelers Won’t Pay Extra to Avoid This Seat on the Plane

Travelers keep complaining about indifferent treatment, or worse, at the hands of the airlines: the too-tight seats, the too-long lines, the too-nasty fees.

The airlines, for their part, counter that they’re simply responding to travelers’ price-sensitivity. So long as consumers put price ahead of comfort or convenience, the airlines have no choice but to configure their pricing and services accordingly.

[st_related]Airlines Mistreat Us, and We Keep Coming Back for More[/st_related]

A new poll by Reuters bolsters the airlines’ case, suggesting that travelers who bemoan their lot are hypocrites. The poll results reflect responses by 2,316 adult travelers to two questions, one regarding loyalty, the other regarding willingness to spend more to avoid the universally despised middle seat.

Loyalty? Not Much

When queried about their willingness to spend more to fly with their preferred airline, 52 percent of the respondents said they would not, while 30 percent would spend “a little more.” Only 5 percent indicated they would spend “a lot more,” and 13 percent weren’t sure.

So much for loyalty generally, and for loyalty programs in particular.

Pay for Comfort? Even Less

Willingness to pay extra to avoid the middle seat in coach is a pretty good proxy for travelers’ values when it comes to the cost-comfort tradeoff. Among the Reuters poll respondents, a full 60 percent were unwilling to pay any premium for a non-middle seat. A decidedly modest 23 percent would spend “a little more,” and a paltry 5 percent would spend “a lot more.”

It’s unclear whether travel consumers have become more disloyal and price-sensitive on their own accord, or whether the airlines have inculcated that stinginess, by degrading their services to the point they became commoditized. Maybe some of each.

Either way, Cost is now King. And all that implies.

Reader Reality Check

Are we getting exactly what we deserve as travel consumers?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


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Recap: The Week’s Biggest Travel Stories and Best Deals

Following is our regular summary of the latest travel news and best frequent traveler promotions reviewed during the past week.

If it was a good deal—or a notably bad deal—from an airline, hotel, or car rental loyalty program, you can read all about it here, and plan your travel accordingly.

Airlines Mistreat Us, and We Keep Coming Back for More

Calls to boycott United following a string of incidents of passenger mistreatment haven’t dented the airline’s profits. Do travelers simply not care?

This Hotel Is Bucking the Trend, Imposing a Gentler Cancellation Policy

Led by Hilton and Marriott, the industry trend is toward ever-harsher cancellation policies. One major hotel chain apparently didn’t get the memo.

Spirit, the Airline Everyone Loves to Hate, Is the Future of Flying

Spirit is the country’s most reviled airline. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it’s the future of air travel.

The Best Time to Book Thanksgiving Flights Is …

We can answer the when-to-book question for Thanksgiving travel. But that raises a related question: Should you care?

On the Horizon: Higher Airport Fees

Ready to pay higher taxes on your ticket? Congress is considering raising the Passenger Facility Charge to $8.50, bringing to $78 the tax on a $300 ticket.

FAA Will Consider Legroom Minimum for Coach Seats

In the coming months, the FAA will review a petition from a flyers’ rights group to establish minimums for coach-seat legroom and width. Here’s hoping.

Honolulu Bans Texting While Crossing the Street

Visitors to Honolulu will soon find themselves cited and fined for using their smartphones to send texts while crossing the street. Mahalo!

Award Sale: 50% Off IHG Award Nights in Latin America, the Caribbean

Got IHG Rewards points? Here’s a limited-time opportunity to redeem 50% fewer of them for award stays in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Win a ‘7-Day Essential Kenya’ Tour for 2

Enter to win a “7-Day Essential Kenya” travel package for two, including air from/to New York, accommodations, most meals, guided sightseeing tours.

Somebody has to win this trip, right? Might as well be you.

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


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Beware Fake ‘Premium Economy’ on U.S. Flights

Delta and Virgin America are now posting their “stretched” economy service—a few extra inches of legroom but in regular narrow six-across seats—as “premium economy” on search engines that use ITA’s fare-search software, including Google Flights, along with Expedia and others.

[st_content_ad]Fact check: Neither Delta nor Virgin America offers real premium economy on any of their planes except for the one A350 Delta just received from Airbus, which it will use for transpacific flights. Instead, on domestic flights, both lines list their extra-legroom seats as if they were premium economy, which—again—they are not.

[st_related]Is Premium Economy Worth the Extra Cost?[/st_related]

Alaska, American, JetBlue, United, and Virgin America also offer stretched economy comparable to Delta’s Comfort+ product. But so far, only Delta and Virgin America have resorted to the deceptive labeling of stretched economy as premium: Alaska calls its stretched economy “premium,” but does not post fares as “premium economy,” nor do American, JetBlue, and United.

But, as I’ve noted before, in the airline business, nothing catches on as quickly as a bad idea.

Certainly, Delta’s Comfort+ and Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select are better hard products and soft products than the corresponding regular economy: You get more legroom and some other extras. But with those same ultra-narrow six-across seats as regular economy, neither is close to the real premium economy you get on many international airlines.

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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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Airlines Mistreat Us, and We Keep Coming Back for More

In the wake of numerous recent incidents of airline misfeasance — most memorably, the forcible expulsion of a bloodied doctor from a United flight — the following question naturally arose among industry analysts: Would such high-profile service breakdowns hurt the airlines’ bottom lines?

The common-sense answer was “Yes.” How could traveler consumers remain unaffected by such malicious behavior? Surely travelers would book away from airlines that treated their passengers with such callous disregard, depriving those carriers of measurable revenue, and sinking their profits.

That notion of a linkage between a company’s treatment of its customers and its financial performance is bolstered by a fundamental sense of justice. Just as we expect individuals and companies that do right to also do well, so do we expect wrongdoers to do badly.

[st_related]FAA Will Consider Legroom Minimum for Coach Seats[/st_related]

In United’s case, those expectations were subverted when the airline announced its financial results for the 2nd quarter, a period which included the doctor-dragging debacle and calls to boycott United. The airline reported a $818 million profit, up 39 percent year-over-year, and an increase in sales as well. If there was a negative financial effect from United’s misdeeds, it was too small to measure.

The indifference with which travelers react to airlines’ misconduct was again highlighted in the results of a study just released by GO, an international airport transportation provider. In response to the question, “Will the recent airport and airline incidents affect your air travel plans this summer?”, a mere 0.7 percent (seven-tenths of one percent) planned to cancel their flights. And, in response to the question, “Have the incidents caused you to switch your preferred airline to one with fewer incidents?”, 7.8 percent answered in the affirmative, while 77.2 percent were “No”‘s and 14.8 percent weren’t sure.

This isn’t a case of travelers’ turning the other cheek. Rather, it’s a combination of consumers’ relentless focus on price and the lack of choices due industry consolidation. Until travel consumers are willing to pay more to reward the industry’s good actors, the bad actors will not just survive, they’ll flourish.

Reader Reality Check

True or false: Air travelers are getting exactly what they deserve?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.