America's new terminal at JFK aiport (Photo: American Airlines)

According to this article in the Seattle Times, American Airlines has unveiled a new way to charge customers money. Let me rephrase that. American Airlines has unveiled the "Your Choice" program, which offers its passengers "Boarding and Flexibility."

For between $9 and $19 each way, passengers can get a spot in Group 1 of general boarding. The Seattle Times speculates (and I agree) that the "main advantage presumably is first crack at overhead bin space, which has grown tighter as more people carry on bags to avoid checked bag fees."

The program also includes a $75 discount on flight-change fees and the option to fly standby on an earlier flight the day of your departure. The latter can now be considered a perk since American eliminated the standby option for non-premium customers a while back....read more»

Spirit Airlines aircraft tail (Photo: Spirit Airlines)

Spirit Airlines has reached a tentative agreement with its pilots union that will end the union's nearly weeklong strike and allow the airline to resume operations Friday. No specifics on the deal are available yet, but union leader Sean Creed sounds positive. He told CNN, "It does move closer to the goals that we established for our pilot group."

The pilots had been looking for compensation more in line with that of other low-cost carriers, such as JetBlue and AirTran, both of which pay its pilots considerably more than Spirit currently does. Talks resumed Tuesday, and the agreement was reached Wednesday afternoon following marathon negotiations. The deal also means flight crew, who were furloughed earlier this week, won't be without a paycheck for long.

But while this is good news, and points to a likely end to the cancelations, the strike won't officially end until the pilots sign a back-to-work order. Creed sounds optimistic about that as well, telling the Associated Press, "I think our people will be more than willing to assist the company in getting itself back together and fully operational as soon as we possibly can."...read more»

Photo: Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines announced changes to its bag fee policy today. Effective immediately, the first three bags on Alaska Air and Horizon will cost passengers $20, while the fourth through 10th bag will cost $50. In most cases, this actually represents a significant reduction in the cost of checking a bag. Here's a breakdown:

  • First bag: New fee: $20; old fee: $15
  • Second bag: New fee: $20; old fee: $25
  • Third bag: New fee: $20; old fee: $50
  • Fourth through 10th bags: New fee: $50; old fee: $100

The airline also changed its baggage delivery guarantee, which stipulates that passengers will receive their bags within a certain amount of time once they're on the ground. Passengers can now expect their bags within 20 minutes of parking at the gate, five minutes quicker than the original guarantee limit. Customers can choose between 2,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles or a $20 flight credit if their bags are late....read more»

Spirit jet in the air  (Photo: Spirit Airlines)

With the pilot strike at Spirit airlines now in its fifth day, the National Mediation Board (NMB), which oversees labor negotiations between airlines and their unions, ordered both sides back to the table yesterday in the hopes of reaching an agreement. According to the Associated Press (AP), the NMB is simply hoping to find some common ground from which to build more meaningful discussion.

But as negotiations resume, the strike has turned a bit uglier. After five days of canceled flights, and with more certain to come, Spirit has furloughed roughly 650 flight crew for the remainder of the strike. That means no paycheck for flight attendants until the pilots and airline sort out their business.

There are a few ways to interpret this. One is that there's just no business sense in paying flight attendants when there are no flights. A brief furlough is necessary to slow financial bleeding, even though it imposes an economic burden on the flight crew. And since it's safe to assume flights will resume reasonably soon, hopefully that burden will not be too great.

But I can't help feeling there's more to it than that....read more»

A true tourist trap is a seemingly can't-miss place that offers something unique (historic, adventurous, scenic, themed), but many also run the gamut from overcrowded to overpriced, so for the sake of brevity in this gallery, we'll define our tourist traps as spots that include all three, and yet still don't quite live up to the hype. In fact, one way to save money at these trendy spots is to simply avoid them.

<strong>Blarney Stone</strong>

Believed to give anyone who kisses it the gift of gab, the <a href="http://www.blarneycastle.ie/pages/stone" target="_blank">Blarney Stone</a> is also thought to give people much more than that. With hundreds of visitors each day locking lips with the granite, it may make some want to reach for the disinfecting mouthwash. Though its story is quite fantastic and well worth hearing, it's up to you whether or not it is worth waiting in a long line to possibly contract a disease. Plus, it'll cost &euro;10 (about $13.53 U.S.; check <a href="http://www.xe.com/" target="_blank">XE.com</a> for current exchange rates).

(Photo: brosner via Flickr. Type of CC Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/brosner/)

Back when we published our hotly contested Worst Tourist Traps photo gallery, dozens of readers wrote in to debate the hygienic wisdom of planting a wet one on the Blarney Stone for good luck.

Which got us thinking about other tourist attractions that might be a Petri dish for germs. So we asked our followers on Twitter what their votes for the germiest tourist attractions were.

Amivmi responded that the "Gum Wall at Pike Place Mkt in Seattle gets a big EEWW!!!" For years, people have been adding a rainbow of chewed gum to the Gum Wall, located outside the Market Theater. Last year, our sister site Trip Advisor even named the Gum Wall one of the world's germiest tourist attractions....read more»

Oil - Offshore oil rig (Photo: iStockPhoto/Chad Anderson)

The oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf has devastated the area tourism industry, one of the main engines of the local economy. Area tourism boards and other groups have offered deals in the hopes of keeping the industry alive, but now a major player is getting into the act. Orbitz customers with standalone hotel reservations along the Gulf Coast can receive a full refund for unused hotel nights if beaches within 20 miles of their hotel are closed. Orbitz will automatically notify you of any such closures, at which point you can decide to take the refund or proceed with your trip.

To be eligible, customers must have booked a hotel reservation (not part of a package) with a participating property on Orbitz for a stay from June 14 through July 31. For a list of participating properties, click here.

Orbitz has set up a dedicated page for the refund offer, including links to relevant government agencies, a map of the oil slick's projected trajectory, the aforementioned list of participating hotels, and links to volunteer opportunities....read more»

American jet on runway (Photo: Kansas City Aviation Department)

American announced a new set of options for customers today. Called Your Choice, the program consists of flight perks and packages of perks, such as priority boarding, available for purchase. In American's words, "Your Choice provides key services intended to make the customer travel experience even more personalized, convenient, cost-effective, and flexible than ever before."

Savvy travelers know that when a major airline puts pen to paper and comes up with a sentence like that, it usually means the customer's wallet is about to take a hit. So let's take a look at Your Choice and see what it's really made of.

The program is debuting with a single package, the Boarding and Flexibility Package. Here are the details:

  • Places you in Group 1 of General Boarding, which allows you to be one of the first groups to board the plane for your flight. (Group 1 boards immediately following PriorityAAccess (SM) customers)
  • Provides a $75 flight change discount, which means that if you need to change your itinerary, you'll save $75 off the regular service charge when applicable
  • Allows you to standby for an earlier flight on your day of departure at no charge
  • Applies to all travelers in your reservation per-person charge

That's not a bad batch of perks, really....read more»

Airplane in blue sky (Photo: iStockPhoto/Stephen Strathdee)

The American Customer Satisfaction Index's (ACSI) annual survey is out, and for the second straight year, the airlines fared pretty well. OK, they didn't do that well, but they did improve.

For background, the ACSI report "covers satisfaction with the quality of products and services provided by airlines, hotels, restaurants, fast food, and express delivery services."

Here's what the ASCI had to say about the airlines: "Passenger satisfaction with airlines improves for a second straight year, up 3% to an ACSI score of 66.  Still, airlines remain near the bottom of all industries in ACSI.  Lower passenger volume and relatively stable fuel prices are part of the satisfaction boost, but travelers are better at shopping for deals and avoiding fees.  More are opting for carry-ons rather than paying baggage fees.  In addition to the savings, this is also reducing the problems related to lost or damaged luggage."

Basically, the industry hasn't done much to actually improve service. Customers are simply better at dodging the airlines' obnoxious fees and policies, some of which (bag fees) have accidentally fixed or improved existing passenger problems (lost baggage)....read more»

<strong>Money</strong>

Imagine you innocently go to reach for the <em>Sky Mall Magazine</em>, but instead are rewarded with a wad of cash or a $500 check, as one reader discovered. Finding money can be about as exciting as hitting the jackpot in Vegas, especially when it's in an unexpected place like an airplane, and many of our readers are big winners. Not to mention, you can now afford to buy something from the in-flight magazine, like that <a href="http://www.skymall.com/shopping/detail.htm?pid=102517807" target="_blank">Big Foot Garden Yeti Sculpture</a> you've been eyeing.

<strong>What about you?</strong>

What other weird, gross, or just plain crazy items have you found in a seatback pocket while flying? Leave a comment below, or to submit your photos, <a href="mailto:kate.hamman@smartertravelmedia.com?subject=Photo submission for SmarterTravel">send us an email</a> with no more than three images attached. 
<h2>All photos must be:</h2>

<ul><li>In .gif or .jpg format</li>
<li> No larger than 2MB</li>
<li> Family friendly</li>
<li> Original, non-copyrighted images</li>
<li> Virus-free</li></ul>

See our <a href="http://www.smartertravel.com/us/terms.html">Terms and Conditions</a> for complete details on our submission criteria.

Our recent articles about scams, rip-offs, and more scams resulted in an onslaught of voices from the road telling us about even more things to watch out for. While these items may not technically be fraud, they can certainly add unexpected expenses to your pocketbook. It makes me wonder: Is it even possible to travel without being fleeced by the industry?

Read on for five reader-reported gotchas, and be sure to share your own experiences in the comments section below.

Paper Tickets

Electronic tickets can make travel easier by eliminating the possibility of losing your paper tickets before your trip (which happened to yours truly before a semester abroad in Dublin). But it also gives airlines an excuse to charge another fee—one that can't always be avoided...read more»

Airport: Security Bin with Shoes (Photo: iStockphoto/Sean Locke)

It's power trip day here at SmarterTravel, and boy, do I have a doozie for you. If given the choice, which annoying airline security measure would you get of: The liquid ban, or the shoes-off-at-security rule?

Neither of these obnoxious tediums require introduction, but nevertheless, here's a little background on each:

The liquid ban, implemented in response to a failed bombing attempt in 2006, is just about the most frustrating thing to happen to packing since ... well, maybe ever....read more»

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