11 Surprisingly Lovable Airlines
When it comes to choosing what airline to fly, the bottom line is often, well, the bottom line: how much it costs to get where you need to go. But with all that laser-sharp focus on saving money, it's easy to lose sight of the little things that can make a trip feel like a journey, rather than an endurance test. To remind you of the ways some companies strive to make life at 30,000 feet a treat—or introduce you to new ones you've never heard about—we present to you our unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of airlines that haven't forgotten how to delight passengers—with memorable perks like cuddle-class couches, hilarious in-flight announcements, and even in-flight showers. How many have you flown?
While Richard Branson gets a lot of attention for his Virgin Galactic enterprise, Air New Zealand's been making great strides in a different kind of space exploration—one that even those of us without a spare $200,000 can enjoy. In late 2010, the Auckland-based airline unveiled the Economy Skycouch, a padded, fold-out seat extension that allows a pair (or trio) of passengers to stretch out side by side for those longest of long-haul flights—say, between Los Angeles and Auckland. The feature, unsurprisingly, was an instant hit. To get the "cuddle class" experience, travelers need to buy a third seat at half off, typically an extra $500 to $800 for an overnight flight—almost certainly less than the cost of upgrading two coach seats to first class. And while about half the buyers so far have been couples, families traveling with small children have happily been opting for the upgrade, too. Did we say great strides? More like a giant leap—for nap time.
In addition to being South Africa's pioneering low-cost airline—it was the first of its kind to launch there, in 2001—Kulula Airlines, based in Johannesburg, aspires to be the world's funniest airline. Before you even board, there's a sight gag: The bright-green planes are painted with "This Way Up" signs or instructional diagrams pointing out the location of the landing gear, the loo, and the co-captain (labeled, "the other pilot on the PA system"). Then there's the in-flight banter, with gems like, "If you don't like our service, we have six emergency exits," and "Cabin crew is coming down the aisle to make sure that your seat belts are on and your shoes match your outfit." The animated airline's most recent prank? Issuing a press release on April 1 touting their new fleet of Boeing 737-800 seaplanes, which would make water landings near Cape Town, Durban, and Gauteng to reduce congestion on South Africa's runways. In their words, "Kulula has never been scared of navigating unchartered waters, and once launched, we're sure it will go swimmingly." Fortunately, there's no two-drink minimum for this airborne comedy show—and even if there were, it wouldn't cost much. "Drinks with zing," as alcoholic beverages are labeled on the in-flight menu, start under $2 each.
No one pinches every possible penny as assiduously as Ryanair, the ultra-low-cost Irish carrier. Some of its shameless antics are mythical, though: The airline has never charged for the use of toilets, introduced standing-room-only sections, or sold passengers porn via handheld devices—despite rumors to the contrary. But Ryanair does commit enough acts of random irritation to upset even a Zen Buddhist. The skinflint airline charges a fee of about $10 to charge tickets to an American credit card, a fee to check in either online or at the airport, and a fee of about $16 to sit in an exit row seat. Once onboard, the hassles continue. The seatbacks don't have pockets; the airline instead prints the emergency instructions on the backs of the seats themselves. During a flight, Ryanair crew members constantly hawk snacks, lottery tickets, and smokeless cigarettes. (For a full list of the airline's sins, see ihateryanair.org.) Yet despite it all, Ryanair remains one of Europe's most-flown carriers. Sure, people may love to hate it, but few budget-conscious travelers seem able to resist its siren song of low fares.
If you've ever thought you were singularly cursed with bad luggage luck, think again: A whopping 42 million bags (on average) are misplaced by airlines worldwide each year. Then, book your next flight on Delta, which had the best baggage-handling record among its peers (that is, the half-dozen largest US airlines) for 2011. Delta had 2.66 reports of mishandled baggage per 1,000 passengers flown last year—an impressive feat, given the airline's complex itineraries. (Budget airline AirTran had a slightly better record, but its simpler route map and lighter schedule give it an unfair advantage; American Eagle, by contrast, doubled Delta's lost-bag reports with 7.32 per 1,000 passengers.) Delta also raised the bar by adding a baggage-tracking tool to its free app for iPhone and Android (as well as to its website, delta.com, for those without smartphones). The app is the first from any airline to allow passengers to enter the number on a bag tag receipt—iPhone users can scan the barcode by snapping a photo of the tag—and watch a bag's journey from departure to arrival, all the way down to its exact claim carousel. If a bag is delayed, the owner can even check the bag's status using a reference number. It's no replacement for a waylaid vacation wardrobe, but it's certainly better than just wondering.
The advent of the superjumbo jet changed the game for aircraft-interior designers, and no one pushed the new boundaries—both in literal and figurative terms—quite like Emirates airlines. Not content to add cushier beds and more elaborate entertainment systems, the Dubai-based carrier was the first in the world to use that additional room on its A380s to install full-height shower stalls for its first-class passengers to freshen up mid-flight. On its Dubai-London route, for instance, Emirates has two snazzy walnut-and-marble "shower spas" to serve its 14 first-class passengers (one person at a time, please). Flight attendants explain the ins and outs in detail before sending folks inside for a scrub—including where to find the oxygen mask, should a change in cabin pressure occur. You'll be happy for the tutorial: When the stall's door is closed, the water turns on automatically—and so does a five-minute timer, complete with a yellow warning light to signal when it's time to rinse off any suds. Even if your financial forecast doesn't call for a "chance of showers," flying coach on Emirates has its own perks: Each seat reclines up to 120 degrees, comes with a power outlet, and has a 10-inch seatback TV screen with 1,200 channels of entertainment.
A nun, a matador, and a bull walk onto on airplane—no, this is not the setup for a joke; it's a list of the characters starring in Virgin America's lighthearted, animated safety-demonstration video. Don't get us wrong—we know that air-travel safety is no laughing matter—but there's a lot to be said for a video that's engaging enough to actually get people to pay attention. (Other airlines have experimented with comic versions of safety videos over the years, but only Virgin America has made it a standard feature.) The video's narrator deadpans all the essential information, inserting an offhand joke here and there ("For the point-zero-zero-zero-one percent of you who have never operated a seat belt before..."), while the animated illustrations showing how, for example, to find and open the compartments where the life vests are stored (in two different spots, depending on your seat) actually do a better job than most. It's the kind of stuff that could save precious seconds in the event of an emergency landing like 2009's Hudson River "miracle"—particularly if everyone on the flight has actually watched the demo. With their eyes open.
Forget the stereotype about German punctuality—Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA) has set the standard for getting planes to their destinations on schedule. According to a report from FlightStats, the airline landed nine out of 10 flights on time in 2011—the best performance of any international carrier last year—just edging out Japan Airlines International (JAL), the winner for the two previous years. (The industry average was a full 10 percent below ANA's performance, with only about eight out of ten flights hitting their scheduled marks.) ANA operates about 1,000 flights a day, primarily out of its hubs in Tokyo and Osaka, and while the bulk of its routes run within Japan, the airline also flies non-stop daily to Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Honolulu. Seattle and San Jose will be added later this year as the 7th and 8th gateways in the U.S.
The ultimate proof that an airline's in-flight food soars above the competition? When people choose to eat it outside the confines of the airplane. That's what has happened with Bangkok-based Thai Airways, whose bakery items (curry puffs, fruit tarts, coffee rolls), ready-made sauces, and salad dressings do brisk sales on the ground in its Puff & Pie takeout shops in Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai. Airline passengers have picked it as a winner, too. Last year, the 18 million people who voted in Skytrax's "World Airline Awards" in the economy-class food faceoff overwhelmingly opted for Thai Airways' cuisine, with its focus on local flavors in dishes like massaman curry, stir-fried chicken, and green curry, all served with white rice. (The airline does offer alternatives for fliers with dietary restrictions or less-adventurous palates.)
Stateside, our in-flight food is often lacking—not just in style (or appeal), but also in substance. High-fat, low-nutrient snacks have become the order of the day. That's why Dr. Charles Stuart Platkin, a nutrition expert known as the "Diet Detective," set out last year to determine which major North American airlines serve food that's actually worth its weight in calories. His findings showed that Virgin America offers (for purchase) the most nutritionally balanced meals and snacks—like the 370-calorie egg-and-vegetable salad wrap that's packed with hunger-sating protein—of all the U.S.-based airlines he studied. Given that today's fliers are grateful for any food being available at all on planes, we're pleased to see two airlines willing to better their catering games.
You're going to love the windows on Nature Air's planes—and not just because the super-sized panels are roughly four times as large as the ones on the last jet you flew. No, the best part is what you see out of them: the astonishing views of the Costa Rican rainforest, which serve as a constant, vivid-green reminder of just what this regional airline is trying to protect. Of course, flying is never going to be a no-impact form of travel—at least not as we know it now—but Nature Air is wholly committed to reducing its harmful effects. The decade-old airline, the world's first (self-proclaimed) carbon-neutral carrier, invests in carbon offsets for 100% of its emissions via reforestation projects on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula, and is constantly working toward greater fuel efficiency through better route planning and weight reduction. Over the last three years, they've increased efficiency by seven percent, and their fleet has some of the most fuel-efficient engines flying today. Sounds like as good of a reason as any to plan a spring fling in Central America.
Imagine checking in for your flight without needing a boarding pass or a barcode, in either print or electronic form. SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) allows just that. Its system at Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm airports, debuting last fall, uses near-field communication (NFC) chips (placed inside stickers affixed to passengers' smartphones) to recognize passengers and their itineraries. Want to check in at an airport kiosk? Simply tap your smartphone, and the kiosk pulls up all relevant information. What about printing luggage tags, passing through security, or boarding the gate ramp to your plane? At each point, just tap your phone, and your info will be zapped to the machines (even if your phone is turned off). As of now, only 50,000 gold-level members of SAS's frequent flier program EuroBonus can use the tap-and-go system when traveling around Scandinavia. This summer, though, manufacturers of Samsung's Android devices—and, possibly, Apple's iPhones—are expected to release new models with NFC chips as a standard perk; here's hoping it's only a matter of time before SAS offers tap-and-go services to all its tech-forward fans.
In the movie Rain Man, Tom Cruise says, "All airlines have crashed at one time or another. That doesn't mean that they are not safe." Dustin Hoffman responds: "Qantas. Qantas never crashed." We're happy to report that the claim still holds up—almost. The Australian national airline holds an admirable safety record, having avoided any fatal crashes for more than 60 years. Granted, Qantas has had some lesser accidents in the last few decades, including a crash of a jumbo jet in Bangkok in 1999 that caused injuries (but not deaths), and an emergency landing of a plane in Manila in 2008 after an oxygen bottle exploded. Yet with its very long track record—it's one of the world's oldest continuously operating airlines, founded in 1920—and heavy flight schedule (4,900 flights each week), the "Flying Kangaroo" still deserves kudos for consistency.
World's Most BIZARRE Food Etiquette Rules
You have good manners, right? After all, you (usually) keep your elbows off the table and say "Please pass the salt," right? But when you head abroad, things get a little more complicated. Case in point: Rest your chopsticks the wrong way, and you might remind a Japanese friend of their grandmother's funeral (Rule 2). But knowing what the etiquette rules are won't just save you from some awkward situations, says Dean Allen Foster, author of the Global Etiquette Guide series. It can also help you make friends. "It's really a statement of your openness and awareness of the fact that the people you're with... may in fact see the world differently," he says. "It's simply going to get you out of the tourist bubble." Sound good? Then here are 15 rules to keep in mind. 1. IN THAILAND, DON'T PUT FOOD IN YOUR MOUTH WITH A FORK. Instead, when eating a dish with cooked rice, use your fork only to push food onto your spoon. A few exceptions: Some northern and northeastern Thai dishes are typically eaten with the hands—you'll know you've encountered such a dish if the rice used is glutinous or "sticky." Also, stand-alone items that are not part of a rice-based meal may be eaten with a fork. But, says Leela Punyaratabandhu, a food writer who blogs at SheSimmers.com, the worst thing to do at a traditional, rice-based meal would be to use chopsticks. "That is awkward and inconvenient at best and tacky at worst," she says. 2. IN JAPAN, NEVER STICK YOUR CHOPSTICKS UPRIGHT IN YOUR RICE. Between bites, your chopsticks should be placed together right in front of you, parallel to the edge of the table—and nowhere else, says Mineko Takane Moreno, Japanese cooking instructor and co-author of Sushi for Dummies. (If there is a chopsticks rest, you use it, putting the tips you've been eating with on the rest.) But sticking them upright in a bowl of rice is even worse: During funerals in Japan, the rice bowl of the deceased is placed before their coffin... with their chopsticks upright in the rice. So what would she rather see: Someone doing that at a meal, or asking for a fork? Mineko doesn't hesitate. "Asking for a fork," she says. 3. IN THE MIDDLE EAST, INDIA AND PARTS OF AFRICA, DON'T EAT WITH YOUR LEFT HAND. In South India, you shouldn't even touch the plate with your left hand while eating. That's largely because the left hand is associated with, um, bodily functions, so it's considered to be dirty. In fact, says Foster, don't even pass important documents with your left hand. A lefty? Then it's okay to use your left hand—as long as you take your right hand out of the game. 4. IN GEORGIA, IT'S RUDE TO SIP YOUR WINE AT SUPRA. At what Georgians call a supra (traditional feast), wine is drunk only at toasts. So wait for those... and then down the whole glass at once. On the upside, says Georgia-based photographer and videographer Paul Stephens, the glasses tend to be on the small side. 5. IN MEXICO, NEVER EAT TACOS WITH A FORK AND KNIFE. Worried about spilling refried beans and salsa all over your front? Tough. Mexicans think that eating tacos with a fork and knife looks silly and, worse, snobby—kind of like eating a burger with silverware. So be polite: Eat with your hands. 6. IN ITALY, DRINK A CAPPUCCINO ONLY BEFORE NOON. Some Italians say that a late-day cappuccino upsets your stomach, others that it's a replacement for a meal (it's common to have just a cappuccino, or a cappuccino and a croissant, for breakfast). Either way, you won't see Italians ordering one in a café at 3 p.m.—and certainly not after a big dinner. Do so, and you'll be instantly branded a tourist. If you need that coffee fix, though, an espresso is fine. 7. IN BRITAIN, ALWAYS PASS THE PORT TO THE LEFT — AND REMEMBER THE BISHOP OF NORWICH. It's unclear why passing port on the left is so important; some say it has to do with naval tradition (the port side of a boat is on your left if you're facing the helm). Regardless, passing the decanter to the right is a big gaffe. So is not passing it at all. If you're at a meal and the decanter stalls, then ask the person with it, "Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?" If they say they don't know him, reply, "He's a very good chap, but he always forgets to pass the port." It sounds weird, but it's true. This is such a nationwide tradition, the Telegraph wrote an article on it. 8. IN FRANCE, DON'T EAT YOUR BREAD AS AN APPETIZER. Instead, eat it as an accompaniment to your food or, especially, to the cheese course at the end of the meal. That said, one thing that would be a faux pas anywhere else—placing bread directly on the table and not on a plate—is perfectly acceptable in France—in fact, it's preferred. 9. IN CHINA, DON'T FLIP THE FISH. Although you might be used to flipping over a whole fish once you've finished one side, don't—at least not when you're in China, especially southern China and Hong Kong. That's because flipping the fish is dao yue in Chinese, a phrase similar to "bad luck." Plus, says Foster, "to flip the fish over is like saying that the fisherman's boat is going to capsize." The most superstitious will leave the bottom part untouched, while others will pull off the bone itself to get to the bottom. 10. IN ITALY, DON'T ASK FOR PARMESAN. Putting parmigiano on pizza is seen as a sin, like putting Jell-O on a fine chocolate mousse. And many pasta dishes in Italy aren't meant for parmesan: In Rome, for example, the traditional cheese is pecorino, and that's what goes on many classic pastas like bucatini all'amatriciana, not parmesan. A rule of thumb: If they don't offer it to you, don't ask for it. 11. IN CHILE, DON'T EAT WITH YOUR HANDS. Manners here are a little more formal than many other South American countries. So while it might be the most practical to just pick up those fries with your fingers, don't do it. "The greater need is to identify with European culture, so food is [eaten] with a knife and a fork," Foster says. 12. IN KOREA, IF AN OLDER PERSON OFFERS YOU A DRINK, LIFT YOUR GLASS TO RECEIVE IT WITH BOTH HANDS. Doing so is a sign of respect for elders, an important tenet of Korean culture. After receiving the pour with both hands, you should turn your head away and take a discreet sip, says Stephen Cha-Kim, a Korean-born worker's rights advocate who regularly visits family in Korea. "To this day, if anybody hands me anything, both hands shoot out instinctively," Cha-Kim says. Similarly, don't start eating until the eldest male has done so (and don't leave the table until that person is finished). 13. IN RUSSIA, NEVER MIX — OR TURN DOWN — VODKA. The beverage is always drunk neat—and no, not even with ice. Adding anything is seen as polluting the drink's purity (unless the mixer is beer, which produces a formidable beverage known as yorsh). But there's another faux pas that's even worse, says Foster: when you're offered the drink and you turn it down. Since offering someone a drink is a sign of trust and friendship, it's a good idea to take it. Even if it is 9 a.m. 14. IN THE MIDDLE EAST, SHAKE THE CUP AFTER DRINKING COFFEE. Typically, anyone Bedouin—or Bedouin-related—will continue to pour you more coffee once you've finished unless you shake the cup, meaning tilting the cup two or three times, when you hand it back. It's such an important tip, says Middle East-based freelance correspondent Haley Sweetland Edwards, that last year, Bedouins she was eating with in Qatar made her practice it until she got it right. 15. IN BRAZIL, PLAY YOUR TOKENS WISELY. At a churrascaria, or a Brazilian steakhouse, servers circle with cuts of meat and diners use tokens to place an order. If a server comes out with something you want, make sure your token, which you'll have at your table, has the green side up. If you don't want any more, flip it with the red side up. Since the meat can be never-ending, it's important to strategize—if you leave that token green side up you could end up ordering a lot more than you intended.
10 Most Useful Travel Websites
The Web should make things easier for travelers, but the sheer volume of services out there is often more overwhelming than useful. Unfortunately, you don't always know which outfits pay off until you've already invested your time. The Budget Travel team puts websites—new and established—to the test every day. So when it came time to line up our favorites, the task was easy—we just turned to the sites we keep revisiting because they're so darn helpful. Our top picks can help you avoid overpaying for airfare (Bing Travel), bag the primo room at a hotel (Hipmunk), and never miss a deal on a rental-car reservation again (AutoSlash). Some of our favorites are as useful as a mind-reading tour guide (Plnnr); others are as handy as having a personal secretary track your frequent-flier balances (Award Wallet). Put them all together, and they become Budget Travel's picks for the best the Web has to offer. FOR PLANNING 1. BING TRAVEL Buy plane tickets at the best possible time.Like other booking sites, Bing lets you comparison-shop for tickets across more than a hundred sources. Yet unlike most other sites, it also analyzes historical data to predict whether the price you see on the screen today is likely to rise (or drop) in the coming week, clearly marking the bargains with a big, green Buy Now icon. What's more, Bing is the only airfare search site to have its predictions independently audited. With an accuracy rate of 75 percent, it's not perfect—but those are better odds than blind guessing gets you. bing.com/travel. 2. AUTOSLASH Lock in the lowest rate on rental cars.Here's how it works: Reserve a vehicle from a favorite agency through the AutoSlash site, and the site will instantly begin tracking rate changes for your reservation. If a sale pops up later—snap!—it automatically locks in the lower price on your behalf. You can even use AutoSlash if you've booked independently. Just enter your confirmation number, and the site will notify you when it's found a lower rate (which you'll have to rebook on your own). Neither AutoSlash nor the company you first booked with charges a fee for the service. autoslash.com. 3. FLY OR DRIVE CALCULATOR Determine the cheapest way to reach your destination.Coupon site befrugal.com crunches data from sources such as AAA and Google Maps to power its Fly or Drive estimator (found in the site's Tools & Calculators tab). The more details you supply—the make and model of your car, the number of travelers in your group, whether you'd be springing for a taxi to the airport—the more accurate the estimates. For the eco-minded, it even includes a carbon-footprint estimate for each mode of travel. (Note: The calculator only works for trips within the continental U.S.) befrugal.com/tools/fly-or-drive-calculator/. 4. PLNNR Get instant itineraries tailored to your tastes.Whether you have a full week or a few hours, Plnnr can craft a (free!) customized point-to-point trip guide for 20 popular urban destinations across North America and Europe. You supply the length of your stay, desired activity level, and interests (such as outdoors, kids' activities, and culture), and the site spits out a fully formed itinerary, factoring in each attraction's opening and closing hours and travel times between spots by taxi or on foot. You can further fine-tune the results by adjusting the priority level for even more specific subcategories—architecture, breweries, and even cemeteries—or reject individual suggestions outright. (Plnnr won't get its feelings hurt.) plnnr.com. 5. HIPMUNK Find a hotel you'll fall in love with.The folks behind Hipmunk's airfare and hotel searches know that good trips are about more than mere numbers. That's why they've incorporated an "agony" scale for flights with multiple legs and long layovers, and an "ecstasy" rating for hotels based on a combination of a property's amenities, rates, and user reviews on TripAdvisor. Even better, Hipmunk's hotel search tool has built-in color-coded heat maps to display a given destination's best spots for dining, shopping, nightlife, landmarks, and—ahem—"vice." So you'll always end up in a neighborhood that fits your specific needs (or noise tolerance). The site displays real-time prices available on Orbitz, Getaroom, Hotels.com, HotelsCombined, or Airbnb and links out to the appropriate site to close the deal. hipmunk.com. ON THE ROAD 6. TRIPIT Keep every last confirmation number, arrival time, and prepaid reservation fee straight.Don't have an über-organized type among your travel crew? Don't worry. TripIt consolidates every important detail of your vacation into a single handy document, which you can access on the go via laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Just forward each email receipt from booking a flight, hotel, rental car, or cruise to your TripIt account, and the site will cull and compile the flight numbers, gate information, and other relevant items so you never show up in the wrong place at the wrong time—or with the wrong confirmation code in hand. Not satisfied? The site also supplies seat-selection advice for flights, links to check in online, flight status updates, weather forecasts, and driving directions. tripit.com. 7. TRIPPING Connect with the locals—through a trustworthy community.While any old travel site can add some social-networking features and call itself "the Facebook of travel," Tripping paves the way for true face-to-face interactions in about 130 countries across the globe. Primarily a homestay network—but just as effective for setting up a casual coffee meeting or a video chat with a looped-in local—Tripping manages the risk factor with its stringent membership policies and strong user-reference system. (To join, users must display a passport via Skype and prove a home address.) When you're not traveling yourself, you can earn some good travel karma by playing tour guide for visitors to your own hometown. tripping.com. 8. GOOGLE MAPS Expertly navigate unfamiliar territory.Thanks to constant refining by its mapmakers and graphic designers, Google's gold-standard mapping tool just keeps getting better. Live traffic information was recently added for 13 European countries; the site's maps for New York City, London, and other major cities now have public transit options; markings for tunnels and highway signs become easier to read every year; and you can plot your route by car, bicycle, or foot—although the latter two options are still in beta. There's simply no more comprehensive and user-friendly way to explore. maps.google.com. ONCE YOU'RE BACK 9. AWARD WALLET Never let another frequent-flier mile expire.Consider it the loyalty-program counterpart to TripIt's travel-info collector. Award Wallet streamlines your family's assortment of frequent-flier and loyalty programs, compiling them in a single, simple, point-tracking package. The setup takes minutes. For each account, just enter your log-in information; Award Wallet automatically pulls your points balances and expiration dates—so you know to take action if you're on the verge of losing them. And because the site saves your log-in information, you only need one password to access all your accounts. awardwallet.com. 10. BLURB Preserve your photographs in a format that people can't keep their hands off of.Custom book publisher Blurb lets you design and print a soft-cover or hardcover travel photo album using impressive design tools and high-quality inks, paper, and binding. Most important, it also leaves you broad creative control. (No floral borders or faux photo-corners necessary.) Price is based on size, paper stock, cover material, and shipping fees, but single copies start at $11 for a 20-page book. Think your book has potential beyond your own coffee table? Blurb can also share your images as a free online slide show or sell copies of the book through its online shop. blurb.com. SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: 4 Most Common Reasons Airlines Lose Luggage 10 Coolest Small Towns in America A Neat Freak's Guide to a Clean Suitcase 10 Gorgeous Pools You Won't Believe Are Public 12 Restaurants With Spectacular Views
A Neat Freak's Guide to a Clean Suitcase
We all know that the door handle to the airplane lavatory is a breeding ground for bacteria, but have you ever considered that similar germs might find their way into your suitcase? Before your inner germaphobe lunges for an airsick bag, a dose of reality is in order. "There's really very little disease you can get from germs on an inanimate object," says Dr. Ronald A. Primas, M.D., of TravelMD.com. "Any time you have a lot of people crammed into a small place, like an airplane, bus, or subway, your risk of acquiring disease is somewhat higher but most of the diseases people get when they travel come from contact with other people directly—not indirectly." Still, as any germaphobe knows, the fact that dirty luggage isn't likely to make you sick provides little solace. Plus, what about the very real possibility of picking up bedbugs or grease stains? Five experts share insider tips on treating the most common suitcase disasters—including when to tackle the mess yourself, when to call in the professionals, and the easiest ways to protect yourself in the future. What's living on my suitcase? Should I be cleaning it after trips? Bacteria and germs are everywhere. Since you never know who's been hoisting your luggage handles behind the scenes (not to mention what's taken up residence on the bottom of that carry-on—E. coli, for example), it's a good idea to have a post-trip plan of attack. "Every time you use your luggage, I would take a damp rag with Lysol and just give the bottom of the bag and the handles a quick once-over," advises Chuck Horst, president of Margaret's Cleaner's San Diego, a dry cleaning service specializing in the care of couture clothing, leather cleaning and handbag and shoe repair. In addition, Horst advises keeping luggage out of your bedroom and—above all—off your bed when you're unpacking after a trip. CLEAN IT 1. Buy some Lysol Disinfecting Wipes. 2. Spot test your suitcase in a discreet area to make sure it won't damage the fabric. 3. Wipe down the bottom of the bag (including wheels) and the handles with Lysol wipes. Squeezing Purell into a rag is similarly effective for removing germs. 4. If you want to completely degerm your suitcase, you can also spend $45 for a professional ozone treatment:a process in which an ozone generator is used to oxidize bacteria. Leather, vinyl, and plastic bags will have to be dry-cleaned by hand (costs will vary depending on the size and scope of the damage). AVOID IT Nesting suitcases that can be stored inside of each other might seem handy, but since the outside of a suitcase is the dirtiest place, it's a bad idea to store them this way, says Horst. If you do, be sure to cover a piece of luggage with a plastic garbage bag before placing it inside another suitcase. A bottle of red wine broke inside my bag! How do I clean this mess? "When red wine spills in your luggage, it is not a good day," says Horst, explaining that it's one of the toughest stains to get out. And while spilled alcohol of the clear variety doesn't necessarily cause discoloration, breakage in your luggage can mean glass shards in the crevices and residual odors that conjure "eau de frat house" everywhere you roll. CLEAN IT 1. Empty your suitcase of its contents and use a vacuum with a crevice tool to suck up all pieces of broken glass from the interior (be sure to check suitcase pockets before vacuuming). 2. Newspapers are hygroscopic (meaning they can readily soak up moisture), says Horst, and can be used to absorb some of the wetness from spilled liquids. Roll up a few pieces of newspaper and place them inside your closed bag for two to three days. 3. Canvas and nylon bags can be scrubbed with reasonable force using a toothbrush and a product such as liquid laundry detergent, according to author Barbara DesChamps, whose book It's in the Bag: Your Custom Business and Travel Wardrobe includes a chapter on fabric cleaning and care. 4. To address major odors, Horst suggests purchasing carbon that's used in aquariums from a pet store and placing it inside a sock in your empty luggage. Spraying Febreze Auto in the suitcase interior is another way to freshen odiferous bags. 5. Wine Away, Horst says, is a product that can help with dissolving red wine stains (evergreenlabs.com, $21 for two 12-ounce bottles). 6. If the exterior of your bag is still stained, you'll need to turn to a professional, like Horst. Leather can be refinished at a cost of $120 to $250, depending on the size, extent of detail, and color of the bag. Canvas and nylon bags can be re-dyed for $60 to $120. AVOID IT Wrap bottles in multiple Ziploc bags before placing them into your luggage to prevent leaks in case of breakage. Commercial airline pilot Omar Amin swears by the VinniBag, a reusable bag with inflatable air chambers that protects bottles from breakage (vinnibag.com, $28,). How do I prevent bed bugs from hitching a ride in my carry-on? With even five-star hotels making the news for bedbugs these days, you should be thinking about how to protect your luggage. "The outside of luggage is typically how bedbugs are getting a ride back to somebody's home," says Jeffrey White, a research entomologist with BedBug Central, an exhaustive online resource that shares information (everything from bedbug identification literature to research and development news) and sells products (from traps that go under furniture to luggage sprays) designed to keep the critters at bay. When it comes to their favorite luggage hangouts, says White, bedbugs like to lurk on zippers, on seams, and alongside the rubber ribbing on a suitcase's exterior. CLEAN IT 1. If you suspect bedbugs at your hotel, begin by notifying hotel management and demanding a different room immediately. 2. Even if you switch rooms, you'll want to bag all your clothes for transport back home. It never hurts to have some dissolvable laundry bags handy when you travel—you can place them directly in the wash, which means that anything living on (as well as in) the bags will be killed. 3. Once home, immediately dump everything washable into the laundry for a hot wash-and-dry cycle. 4. If a visual inspection of the outside of your suitcase shows the critters are there, wipe or spray the bag with 91 percent isopropyl alcohol, which will kill them on contact, says White. 5. Before putting the luggage away, use a crevice cleaner to vacuum out the entire suitcase; then wrap it in plastic bags for storage. 6. If all else fails, using a product like Nuvan Prostrips is a brawny step to take in the battle against bedbugs. Simply place your empty suitcase in a garbage bag with one of the strips—the strip releases an odorless gas that kills the unwanted bloodsuckers ($50 for a 12-pack). AVOID IT While chances remain slim that your hotel room will have bedbugs, you can take preventative action by using a spray like Pronto Plus (prontoplus.com, $6.75 for a 10-ounce can) before you travel, coating the inside and outside of your luggage to keep bedbugs away, says Michael Colongione, president of GotchA! Bed Bug Inspectors. Yuck, my bag is covered in black grease. What now? Airport baggage systems are made up of all sorts of moving parts lubed with grease to keep them running smoothly. So it's no surprise that many a frequent flier has seen his or her suitcase emerge looking like it's done a lap around a racetrack rather than the baggage carousel. If you have a hardcase or a nylon bag, there's a chance you'll be able to get the stains out yourself; leather and canvas bags require professional treatment. CLEAN IT Hardcase bags 1. On hardcase bags, says Horst, "start with a product like Simple Green and a rag to try to get the grease out," and then move up to products like Formula 409 Glass and Surface Cleaner and Windex Original, which contain ammonia and are more aggressive cleaners (but carry a risk of color and luster damage). 2. Do a color test first on a discreet part of the bag to make sure the product won't damage the suitcase. 3. Then apply Simple Green to a damp, soft rag and wipe it over your suitcase, followed by a swipe with a clean rag to rinse and one with a dry rag to finish. (The ammonia cleaners can be sprayed directly onto the bag and wiped with a sponge or soft rag.) 4. Finally, if your hardcase bag lost its luster in the cleaning process, use Armor All Original Protectant or automotive wax to shine it up again. Nylon bags 1. For nylon or other soft bags affected by grease, DesChamps recommends using dry cornstarch. "Rub the cornstarch into the fabric, let it sit for as long as it takes to absorb the grease, and then brush it off, repeating as necessary," she says. She recommends getting as "much of the grease off as possible this way before you try to clean the suitcase with detergent." 2. After you've done all you can with cornstarch, it's time to break out the soap. Horst recommends mixing Ivory Snow with water—a good option because it won't bleach out the color or degrade the fabric of your suitcase. Fill a pan halfway with warm water and add just enough powder or liquid to make suds with gentle splashing, he says. 3. Next step: Apply the suds to the bag (again, using a soft rag or sponge). Heavy soiling may require a minute or two of scrubbing and repeated applications. Leather bags 1. For leather bags, you definitely want to employ the help of a dry cleaner who specializes in accessories, says Horst, since using wet products to try to lift grease will only cause it to become further engrained in leather and "much harder, if not impossible to get out." The cost starts at $40 and goes up depending on the bag. AVOID IT Using Scotchgard Fabric & Upholstery Protector on your luggage as a preventative measure goes a long way in making it easier to remove grease stains after the fact, says Horst. Keep a distance of about 18 inches from the suitcase when you apply the aerosol spray, he says, and be sure not to apply in heavy coats, as Scotchgard can darken colored fabrics. Help! My shampoo exploded like a bomb inside my luggage! Who hasn't arrived at their destination and found a soupy, soapy mess where once there were shampoo and conditioner bottles? Exploding toiletries are a fact of life for most frequent fliers. And while the mess is inherently clean, cleaning it up often leads to a foamy disaster. CLEAN IT 1. The first thing to know when cleaning up spilled soaps and shampoos is that,in most cases, no additional cleanser is necessary. 2. Horst recommends using a spray bottle with water to slowly lubricate the saturated area. Then alternate between spraying and vacuuming with a wet/dry vac to suck the moisture out. 3. Unless your luggage is a hardcase, avoid getting it really wet as part of your cleaning process, says Horst, as that will only drive the spilled soaps deeper into fabrics. (Hardcases with soiled interior linings can require professional cleaning, which can range from $95 to $165.) 4. If the cardboard bottom of your bag has been saturated with shampoos or other exploding liquids, there's a chance that it's permanently damaged and will need to be replaced—an easy, but not inexpensive, fix at most luggage repair centers, where experts will insert a new base into your bag for $120 or more. 5. Leather bags saturated with shampoos and soaps should be brought in for professional cleaning, which costs between $120 and $250 (you'll pay up to $250 more if the lining needs to be replaced). AVOID IT Those TSA rules that mandate Ziploc bags for liquids in carry-ons make a lot more sense when applied to transporting toiletries in your checked bags. Putting individual toiletries or your entire toiletry bag in a Ziploc bag or two when you travel is a simple measure that can save you a lot of hassle.
Fireworks Photography in 5 Easy Steps
Support: Be a rock (or find one) Keeping steady is key. When pointed at nighttime fireworks, your camera will naturally reduce the shutter speed in an attempt to capture the bright bursts of light and the explosive movement. The consequence: If your hands shake even a little, you risk a photo that's a blurry mess. And once a firework is gone, it's not coming back. To steady yourself, find something stable on which to rest your camera—a fence or a rock ledge, for example—that will help reduce any movement. Better yet, spring for a small piece of equipment that will yield more predictable results. You don't have to buy an expensive, bulky product. For about $10, you can get a pocket size "bottle top" tripod sturdy enough for a point-and-shoot camera from Amazon.com. Also consider the cute and flexible Gorillapod, whose twistable legs wrap around poles, branches, or railings (joby.com, $25). For a bigger camera, like a single lens reflex (SLR), you'll need the enhanced stability of a tabletop or full-size tripod. If you've never used one, don't be intimidated; when you're shooting fireworks, a good tripod will make the difference between a poor photo and the sharp, vivid one you're after. Location: Serendipity happens Before you start photographing, find your spot, ideally a space where your view is unobstructed. If there is a hill or any high ground, use it to improve your vantage point. When you shoot, as a rule of thumb, at least two-thirds to three-quarters of the frame should be filled with the sky. If you're near water, try including it in your composition, as the water will nicely reflect the color and intensity of the fireworks. (See photo example) Other compositional techniques: Use trees or buildings to frame the image and give it more depth, or incorporate people near the bottom of the frame to create interesting silhouettes. And, of course, serendipity can work magic you never planned for, so take lots of pictures and don't be afraid to experiment. A last bit of advice: If it's windy, try to position yourself upwind of the fireworks. Otherwise, the smoke could waft across your view and make taking the picture difficult. Lens: Wider is better A 50mm lens provides roughly the same field of view as the human eye, but a wide-angle lens works better for fireworks photography. If you can get your hands on a 20mm to 35mm lens, for example, you will increase your field of view—the amount of sky you see through your lens—and have better luck capturing the full effect of the fireworks. A lens that's too long (80mm to 200mm), on the other hand, will almost certainly yield photos that cut out some of the action you want to reproduce. If you are using a point-and-shoot with a built-in zoom lens, be sure to zoom all the way out, which will give you the widest possible lens setting. Settings: Take it slow If you're shooting digital, set your camera's film speed to ASA 100. If you're shooting film, purchase an ASA 100 roll with 36 exposures. It's a slow film speed, so the color saturation will be high, and what professionals call the "grain" (the visible particles that make a photo look fuzzy) will be low—good for fireworks photos. If you use a higher ASA, such as 400 or 800, you will increase the graininess of the film (or the digital noise in a digital file). This is distracting and decreases the clarity of the image. Be sure to turn off your flash; the burst of bright light from the bulb will overwhelm the fireworks. If you have an automatic camera, try shooting images in both daylight and nighttime modes—and check your results as you go to see which setting yields the best results. Timing: It's everything Fireworks move fast. One timing strategy is to push the shutter button while the firework is still rising in the sky. The shutter will stay open longer due to the low light, so the camera should have time to capture the last moments of the firework's trail and the subsequent explosion. If your camera will take multiple images or "bursts," you may also want to try that approach. It'll increase your chances of getting the shot just right. If you're worried about a shaking hand, use your camera's self-timer, ideally along with a tripod. You won't have to touch the camera at the moment the shot is taken. Your camera may have two time-delay settings for the self-timer, usually 2 or 10 seconds. If your camera allows for it, set it to the shorter time delay.