Archive for June, 2012

Airline squeeze: Its not you, its the seat

June 6th, 2012 by Mariah

Boeing 737-823 aircraft picture

(CNN) — If you’re on a flight — especially a long one — a coach class seat can be a chair of torture. It doesn’t take much these days to ruin a perfectly good airplane ride, CNN.com readers have made clear. It’s a real buzzkill to try to walk down the aisle “with a bag on your shoulder, hitting everyone as you pass by,” suggests user “Cajuncatdude.” Commenter “Rosemeow” writes, “It’s bad enough that about a quarter of the time, I have an obese person sitting next to me (sometimes on both sides) who doesn’t fit into their own seat, crushing me.” And “MrsColumbo” complains about “people who don’t even try to stand up without grabbing on to the seat in front and pulling themselves up. What is with that?”

For something as seemingly simple as stuffing rear ends between two armrests inside a flying metal tube, it kind of feels like there’s some anger up there.

See some of the comments here

And things could get even more heated. Changes are happening now, as major U.S. carriers look for new ways to pump up profits by either adding to or reducing the number of coach seats, increasing legroom or cutting the distance between rows.

You might call it a game of aeronautical chairs that will directly affect passenger comfort, convenience and cost.

Two experts with inside knowledge of the airline seat industry– a vice president at a seat manufacturer and a nationally recognized expert in the study of body measurements — recently talked frankly about some of the reasons behind the anger and discomfort.

Are the seats getting smaller? Closer together? Are passengers getting bigger? Are we getting angrier?

Well, no. Yes. Yes. And it’s unclear.

Americans are getting bigger, says Kathleen Robinette, who’s studied human body measurements for the U.S. Air Force for three decades.

But in general, the problem’s “not you — it’s the seat,” she says with a chuckle.

Since Robinette’s first airline seat study for NASA and the FAA in 1978, she has a different perspective when she boards an airliner. “I always see all kinds of arms hanging out into the aisles. That means the seats are too narrow, and there’s nowhere for the shoulders and arms to go except into the aisle because there’s not enough room in the seat.”

When “you keep getting your arm whacked by the cart as it comes down the aisle,” don’t feel guilty, she says. It happens to everybody. “And it’s because of the seats.”

And what about passengers grabbing the seat in front of them to pull themselves out of their own seats? Is that really a thing?

“It can be quite annoying,” laughs Jeff Luedeke, a vice president at airline seat manufacturer TIMCO Aerosystems, maker of seats aboard Allegiant, Japan Airlines, RwandAir, and Spirit Airlines. Seat grabbing creates a challenge for designers, said Luedeke, who flies about a quarter-million miles yearly. “If the rows weren’t so close together that would probably prevent people from grabbing the back of the seat.”

In 1962, the U.S. government measured the width of the American backside in the seated position. It averaged 14 inches for men and 14.4 inches for women. Forty years later, an Air Force study directed by Robinette showed male and female butts had blown up on average to more than 15 inches.

“The seat is a revenue generator,” Luedeke says. “Normally if you look at a 737 or A320 there are three seats on each side. If you wanted maximum comfort you could do two on each side — and make the seats a lot wider. But with the reduced head count the operational costs don’t work out.”

But the American rear end isn’t really the important statistic here, Robinette says.

Nor are the male hips, which the industry mistakenly used to determine seat width sometime around the 1960s, she says.

“It’s the wrong dimension. The widest part of your body is your shoulders and arms. And that’s much, much bigger than your hips. Several inches wider.” Furthermore, she says, women actually have larger hip width on average than men.

The industry used the male hip as a seat measuring stick “thinking that it would accommodate the women too, but in fact they don’t accommodate the larger women.”

The result: Airline seats are approximately 5 inches too narrow, she says. And that’s for passengers in the 1960s, let alone the supersized U.S. travelers of today.

Overhead on CNN.com: Angry fliers get what they deserve

Current standard coach seat widths range from 17 to 19 inches between the armrests, says Luedeke, and that little piece of real estate is known in the industry as “living space.”

The term seems appropriate for some non-stop transoceanic flights that will have you inhabiting your “living space” for up to 18 hours.

“I look at it like, I’ve leased this space for the next three hours — or however long the flight is,” Luedeke says. At a recent industry convention in Hamburg, Germany, TIMCO asked volunteers to test seats. The testers didn’t know it, but some seats had cushions and some did not. Many of the testers laughed when they found out later that their seats had no cushions. Even funnier: Some passengers said the seats without cushions were more comfortable.

“One of the most important things about a comfortable seat is the ability to move in it,” Robinette says. “You have to be able to readjust your posture every so often for it to stay comfortable.” Otherwise, she warns, passengers put themselves at risk of deep vein thrombosis, a serious health condition affecting people prone to blood clots. Sitting in place for long periods can lead to clotting in veins. Clots can break loose, travel through the bloodstream and lodge in the lungs, blocking blood flow.

Although America’s butts are bulging, it doesn’t appear that economy class seats are following suit.

“Our seating surfaces are contemporarily appropriate,” says a spokesman for Southwest Airlines. The airline is in the process of reconfiguring seating on its entire fleet. But it’s not changing the width.

Seat rows aboard Southwest Boeing 737-700s are moving closer together. In airline-seat speak the operative word is “pitch.”

Pitch is defined as the distance between one point on a seat and the same point on the seat behind. A typical seat pitch in coach measures from 31 to 35 inches, Luedeke says.

Southwest’s new pitch configuration moves its rows about an inch closer together, from 32 to 31 inches, according to the airline. In addition, economy seats will move only two inches during recline instead of three, the airline says. Amazingly, because of the new seat design, the airline says coach passengers will be blessed with an extra inch of legroom. Will fliers notice the difference? Let us know.

Bottom line: Southwest’s new economy class seats will allow for six additional coach seats per plane. Bonus: The new seats weigh less, which will save about $10 million in yearly fuel costs. It’s an “environmental win and a revenue positive move on the extra seats,” says the airline.

In general, coach seats haven’t narrowed over the years, Luedeke says. “I believe it’s more of a perception caused by seat pitches getting tighter.”

So now — if rows are moving closer together — we’re playing footsie with legroom.

That’s important. Thirty percent of Americans who answered a recent poll by TripAdvisor said comfortable seating is the biggest improvement airlines could make. And 41% said airlines adding more legroom would be the biggest improvement.

Over the past few years carriers have been moving toward a standard of charging more for seats with extra legroom.

These include seats in the forward coach cabins and emergency aisles that used to cost the same as other economy class seats. Also, some airlines have reconfigured seats to add a bit more legroom in certain aisles, for a price.

United Airlines started selling its “Economy Plus” extra-legroom seats for premium prices a few years ago, and now it’s expanding the program. To make space for the extra 5 inches of legroom, United is removing three to six seats, depending on the aircraft. Legroom for United regular coach seats will remain the same, with a pitch of 31 inches.

The special seating lures “higher revenue and more frequent customers,” says a United spokesman. Some customers want more space, he says, but “there are other customers who value getting the cheapest price, and for them … the seating is not their highest priority.”

Delta followed with a similar program last year, and American Airlines in March. American said it’s in the process of removing at least four to nine coach seats per aircraft to create the extra legroom. Price: from $8 to $108 — depending on the flight. They call it their Main Cabin Extra program.

In the TripAdvisor survey, 71% said they weren’t willing to pay for extra legroom on domestic flights under four hours.

“Some view the ability to select a seat as an additional fee,” says Bryan Saltzberg of SeatGuru.com. “Some view the ability to actually secure more legroom as actually a benefit — and they’re willing to pay for that benefit. It depends on who you’re talking to and the carrier.”

By the way, here are three magic words in the airline seat business: articulating seat pan.

The articulating seat pan is what allows airlines to move seat rows closer together without losing legroom.

In a traditional reclining airline seat, only the seat back moves. But with an articulating seat pan, as the back moves to the rear, the seat pan moves forward. “The back of the seat isn’t moving as far as it traditionally did, but the feeling you get is that it moves further,” Luedeke says. Because the seat doesn’t need as much room to recline, it saves space for more seats. Also, the back of the seat is thinner, saving even more space.

It looks like coach seats won’t be getting any bigger any time soon. That’s largely because consumers don’t demand bigger seats, Robinette says. Consumers demand low fares, so that’s what airlines offer, she says. Consumers who demand better seats fly first class.

“The manufacturers are perfectly willing to make the wider seats,” Robinette says. “They understand the issues. But their customers are the airlines. And they’re giving the airlines what they ask for. The airlines are also giving their customers — the passengers — what they want. So the consumer needs to be smarter. The consumer is the one who needs to drive the width of the seats.”

What do you think? It’s a tricky balancing act between affordable fares and comfortable seating. Are airlines offering economy class passengers what they want? Let us know what you think in the comment area below.

Planning a trip to Disney? Better start saving now

June 6th, 2012 by Mariah

Theme park admission prices tend to go up for the summer season when kids are out of school, but if the price hikes we’ve seen recently become the norm, more and more parents may end up having a conversation that goes something like: “Sorry kids. It’s either college or a trip to Disney World.”

A jump in theme park prices is expected during popular seasons, and parents usually just have to grit their teeth and pay the few extra dollars to keep the kids smiling. But recent price increases may force a lot of American families to put off this year’s — or next year’s — vacation.

Ouch!

Walt Disney World in Orlando raised the price of its one-day, single-park ticket to $89 — a 4.7% jump from the old price of $85. That price is for ages 10 and older and doesn’t include taxes. Just a few weeks ago, Disneyland in California announced price hikes of up to 30% on various tickets and season passes. A one-day pass now costs $87, up almost 10% from its previous price of $80.

The problem is, this isn’t just one price hike you can try to maneuver around. What’s going to hit families so hard is the fact that almost all of the tickets offered by these theme parks have gone up in price. Disney’s “Park Hopper” ticket option jumped to $57, up 3.6% from $55. That ticket allows you to go to more than one of Disney’s theme parks on the same day. And to round it all out, Disney’s premium annual pass, which includes access to Disney World’s four theme parks and the resort’s water parks, rose 7.7% to $699. For Florida residents, that ticket now costs $425, compared to the previous price of $389.

Maybe you were hoping to save a few bucks on your youngest ones? If they aren’t wearing a diaper, then you can count on their tickets costing as much as yours. The cost for all premium and seasonal passes is now the same for children and adults ages 3 and up, so those tickets for kids between the ages of 3 and 9 are no longer discounted.

And just in case it crossed your mind, ditching Disney for the other major theme parks won’t do you any good, either. Just a week ago, Universal Studios in Orlando raised its one-day, single-park price to $88, a jump of 3.5%. The park also raised the price of a four-day ticket to $256, a five-day ticket to $268 and a seven-day pass to $288.

What it all means for you

So let’s take a look at what these numbers really mean for the average American family of four. First of all, it’s cheaper to buy multiple-day passes, so let’s look at the cost for a family buying four-day passes:

For two adults, a 10-year-old and a six-year-old to spend one whole day at each of Disney’s four major theme parks, it would cost close to $1,000. OUCH! That’s about $60 a day for the six-year-old and $64 a day for the 10-year-old and both parents. The price per day goes down as you add more days to the ticket, so instead of buying four single-day passes, it would be cheaper to buy four-day passes. And don’t forget, those prices do not include taxes.

So before you even begin to factor in travel, food and accommodations, families should budget at least $1,000 just to enter the parks at Disney World. And for struggling American families, a trip to Disney has become something can involve months or even years of saving.

How to save

If you want to take your family to Disney World and the budget is tight, the best way to save is on everything besides the park tickets. HLN Money Expert Clark Howard is a big fan of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. The latest 2012 edition includes information on updated hotel, attraction and restaurant ratings; new park expansions; latest prices and policies of the Disney Dining Plan; 30 best hotel deals for 2012; and information on car rental agencies and the best discounts throughout the year.

Booking accommodations through discount sites like Hotwire and Priceline can save Disney visitors a bundle. Staying at the Disney resort can end up costing you a fortune, but by booking early through one of these sites, you’ll be able to choose the type of hotel and price range that won’t break the bank.

Another way to save on accommodations is by booking through VRBO , Vacation Rentals by Owner. The site allows homeowners to rent out their vacation home directly to renters. This is a great way for families to save by renting a condo or house for the week, instead of paying for multiple hotel rooms, especially when prices are up.

And when it comes to the time of year you should go, fall is the best time for Florida vacations, if you want to get the lowest prices. So if you can skip the popular summer season, wherever you decide to stay may cost at least a little bit less.

One thing a lot of Disney visitors don’t think about is rain! Head to the dollar store and pick up some ponchos before the trip so you don’t end up buying overpriced ones at the park for $10 each. When it comes to saving at these parks, every little bit counts, because it adds up quickly.

Last, and certainly not least, the cost of food can be outrageous at theme parks, so Clark suggests eating two meals a day outside of the park. That way you can pick and choose where you eat and how much money you spend on each meal. The Unofficial Guide does have pricing information for restaurants at the Disney parks, so you can also check that out in advance.

Theme park admission prices tend to go up for the summer season when kids are out of school, but if the price hikes we’ve seen recently become the norm, more and more parents may end up having a conversation that goes something like: “Sorry kids. It’s either college or a trip to Disney World.”

A jump in theme park prices is expected during popular seasons, and parents usually just have to grit their teeth and pay the few extra dollars to keep the kids smiling. But recent price increases may force a lot of American families to put off this year’s — or next year’s — vacation.

Ouch!

Walt Disney World in Orlando raised the price of its one-day, single-park ticket to $89 — a 4.7% jump from the old price of $85. That price is for ages 10 and older and doesn’t include taxes. Just a few weeks ago, Disneyland in California announced price hikes of up to 30% on various tickets and season passes. A one-day pass now costs $87, up almost 10% from its previous price of $80.

The problem is, this isn’t just one price hike you can try to maneuver around. What’s going to hit families so hard is the fact that almost all of the tickets offered by these theme parks have gone up in price. Disney’s “Park Hopper” ticket option jumped to $57, up 3.6% from $55. That ticket allows you to go to more than one of Disney’s theme parks on the same day. And to round it all out, Disney’s premium annual pass, which includes access to Disney World’s four theme parks and the resort’s water parks, rose 7.7% to $699. For Florida residents, that ticket now costs $425, compared to the previous price of $389.

Maybe you were hoping to save a few bucks on your youngest ones? If they aren’t wearing a diaper, then you can count on their tickets costing as much as yours. The cost for all premium and seasonal passes is now the same for children and adults ages 3 and up, so those tickets for kids between the ages of 3 and 9 are no longer discounted.

And just in case it crossed your mind, ditching Disney for the other major theme parks won’t do you any good, either. Just a week ago, Universal Studios in Orlando raised its one-day, single-park price to $88, a jump of 3.5%. The park also raised the price of a four-day ticket to $256, a five-day ticket to $268 and a seven-day pass to $288.

What it all means for you

So let’s take a look at what these numbers really mean for the average American family of four. First of all, it’s cheaper to buy multiple-day passes, so let’s look at the cost for a family buying four-day passes:

For two adults, a 10-year-old and a six-year-old to spend one whole day at each of Disney’s four major theme parks, it would cost close to $1,000. OUCH! That’s about $60 a day for the six-year-old and $64 a day for the 10-year-old and both parents. The price per day goes down as you add more days to the ticket, so instead of buying four single-day passes, it would be cheaper to buy four-day passes. And don’t forget, those prices do not include taxes.

So before you even begin to factor in travel, food and accommodations, families should budget at least $1,000 just to enter the parks at Disney World. And for struggling American families, a trip to Disney has become something can involve months or even years of saving.

How to save

If you want to take your family to Disney World and the budget is tight, the best way to save is on everything besides the park tickets. HLN Money Expert Clark Howard is a big fan of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. The latest 2012 edition includes information on updated hotel, attraction and restaurant ratings; new park expansions; latest prices and policies of the Disney Dining Plan; 30 best hotel deals for 2012; and information on car rental agencies and the best discounts throughout the year.

Booking accommodations through discount sites like Hotwire and Priceline can save Disney visitors a bundle. Staying at the Disney resort can end up costing you a fortune, but by booking early through one of these sites, you’ll be able to choose the type of hotel and price range that won’t break the bank.

Another way to save on accommodations is by booking through VRBO , Vacation Rentals by Owner. The site allows homeowners to rent out their vacation home directly to renters. This is a great way for families to save by renting a condo or house for the week, instead of paying for multiple hotel rooms, especially when prices are up.

And when it comes to the time of year you should go, fall is the best time for Florida vacations, if you want to get the lowest prices. So if you can skip the popular summer season, wherever you decide to stay may cost at least a little bit less.

One thing a lot of Disney visitors don’t think about is rain! Head to the dollar store and pick up some ponchos before the trip so you don’t end up buying overpriced ones at the park for $10 each. When it comes to saving at these parks, every little bit counts, because it adds up quickly.

Last, and certainly not least, the cost of food can be outrageous at theme parks, so Clark suggests eating two meals a day outside of the park. That way you can pick and choose where you eat and how much money you spend on each meal. The Unofficial Guide does have pricing information for restaurants at the Disney parks, so you can also check that out in advance.

Make or Break? Travel tests your love life

June 6th, 2012 by Mariah

(CNN) — When Tom Wilmes and Ashley Dye started planning a scuba diving trip right after they started dating, they ignored the raised eyebrows and questioning family members.

“Ashley and I took a way-too-early and probably inappropriately romantic trip to St. John in the Virgin Islands after dating just a few months,” said Wilmes, an editor at American Cowboy magazine who had been friends with environmental attorney Dye for years before they started dating. “More than a few people asked if we were on our honeymoon.”

“It could have been awkwardly disastrous, but instead, we fell in love over mudslides in the moonlight every night on a deserted beach. I told her I loved her for the first time, and now we’re married five years with a beautiful son and another on the way in two months!”

Having been on less successful trips with previous girlfriends, Wilmes knew that it mattered that they enjoyed traveling together.

They scuba dived in the morning, played on the beach in the afternoon and had drinks on the deserted beach at night. “We just really meshed,” he said. “We’re both real low key, and we’re not going to get bent out of shape if things don’t go exactly to plan. We’re compatible in that way.”

It’s the make or break travel experience.

Whether it’s your first trip together or the highly anticipated, much-romanticized honeymoon, travel ramps up the pressure and can tell you what you need to know about another person and how (or if) you’ll have fun and solve problems together. One high-stress trip can result in a relationship flameout or the discovery of true love.

“Your first trip will not only reveal your compatibility as a dating couple, but ultimately how you will relate as a married couple,” said Allison Pescosolido, co-founder of counseling service Divorce Detox in Santa Monica, California. “Traveling can be seen as a mini-test to see how your relationship works when you are together 24-7 and dealing with unpredictable circumstances.”‘

Lack of shared interests or willingness to explore each other’s interests can surface early, and it matters, said Pescosolido.

When traveling early in the relationship, she suggests a few key questions to ask yourself: Does your partner want to do the same things you do or trade off your choices with his choices? Does she roll with unexpected delays or does she complain when your plans go awry? Does he treat hotel and restaurant staff with respect or does he have temper tantrums? Does he spend more time saving money than having fun?

People who crumble under the pressure of a vacation may exhibit that same behavior at home.

Allow yourself to grow

If that first trip to St. John hadn’t gone well, the Wilmeses could have simply parted ways. That wouldn’t have been as easy for Pamela Skjolsvik of Bedford, Texas. She had already married the guy.

Skjolsvik met her future husband while bartending in San Francisco, and they started dating and married nearly two years after they met. They had taken short trips around the Bay Area before getting married, but they had never taken long trips.

When her fiance proposed that their honeymoon be a three-week road trip in his cargo van, she said yes to not spoil his vision of her “so soon in our marriage.” Truthfully, she dreaded driving in a van without air-conditioning, bathrooms or a hair dryer for her frizzy hair and feared bugs — and possibly serial killers — attacking their van.

The turning point came a few days into the trip, when they found a campground at Carlsbad Caverns, a National Park in New Mexico with many bats. “I just realized as I watched the bats, ‘this is fun,’ ” she said. “I wasn’t worrying about what I looked like, in the moment. After that, it was a lot more fun. I work myself up so much.”

She also got to see her husband in a new light and allowed herself to get even closer to him.

“He was capable of doing things I didn’t know anything about, like building a fire,” she said. “Here’s a guy who knows how to get places and knows how to adapt to his surroundings,” she says. “I really did get to know him and appreciate him as a person. It was probably a turning point for me.”

That’s a significant benefit of traveling together. “Traveling can be a lot of fun because you get to spend a lot more time with your partner,” said Dr. Amir Levine, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist and co-author of “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love.”

“Take it as an opportunity to learn how to really be there for one another. That’s what a good relationship is all about, the give and take. And it’s an opportunity to get closer.”

People can change

In retrospect, technical editor Paulette Baker says she should have walked out after her honeymoon. Baker, who grew up hiking in the woods near her home in Connecticut and had developed a passion for photography, thought her future husband shared her interests.

Before she married, Baker had started traveling solo because a former boyfriend preferred going to New York and Newport and staying in elegant hotels. She broke up with him and married her husband in part because she thought he also liked hiking and photography.

“If I’ve caught bloom season right, it might take me twice as long to complete a trail as the time suggested in guidebooks,” said Baker, now living in East Lyme, Connecticut.

Sometimes it takes a while for negative traits to emerge. Her husband’s lack of interest in her interests became apparent right before the wedding, she said.

“He informed me that I was to take no more than five rolls of film on our honeymoon so that I wouldn’t spend more time with my camera than with him,” she said. “To him a hike was something to be accomplished rather than experienced. He would sigh and fidget if I spent too much time, in his opinion, taking pictures.”

And sometimes it’s about compatibility. Baker didn’t mind having different interests or traveling alone. But her husband didn’t share her interests, didn’t want to trade off exploring their different interests and wasn’t comfortable with her pursuing them by herself. The couple divorced after nine years of marriage and were separated for the last three.

Not wanting to try your interests is definitely a red flag, according to Pescosolido.

“This could be a sign of self-centeredness or unwillingness to do things that aren’t familiar,” she said. “Unless you love routine, this could lead you to ending up with a rigid or boring partner.”

Using travel to find oneself

Heather enjoyed camping and exploring the United States with her husband and two dogs when they first got together, more than 22 years ago.

But as they got older, Heather (an English professor who didn’t want her last name used to protect her family’s privacy) realized that difficult and long flights to Asia were worth it so she could explore the places she wanted to explore. Her husband, from whom she is now separated, preferred shorter trips closer to their home in Denver.

So they traveled apart. “At the end of our marriage, we used solo travel to escape each other and the pain our relationship caused us,” Heather wrote from Bali, where she now lives.

“Whichever one of us was away, we were happier than we were together. I think he was happier when I was away and he had the comforts of home all to himself. For me, I preferred to be away from home alone; the comforts of home aren’t that important to me.”

While happy couples can travel separately, they have to work on their relationship in other ways.

That’s not what happened with Heather and her husband.

“We used our time apart to grow as individuals, which definitely did not help us grow as a couple. But it was a necessary progression we had needed to make for a long time.”

The no-pressure travel experience

And then there’s the travel experience that turns your life upside down.

The night train from Florence to Vienna was packed, and Mariana Lamaison of Argentina and her friend were lucky to find a compartment occupied by just one young American man, Zachary Sears.

“As we began to talk, we realized we had planned the same trip: Vienna, Prague, Berlin,” said Lamaison, who had recently graduated from college. So the three young people decided to travel together during that summer of 1997.

“We could tell right away that we were interested in the same things,” she said. “We wanted to see classic art and history. The first night we went to a Mozart concert in Vienna, a traditional concert where everyone in the orchestra dressed classically.”

They became fast friends. When they parted a week later, Lamaison and Sears missed each other and wrote letters for three years. When they both got e-mail addresses, they quickly realized they wanted more. Lamaison flew to the United States, ostensibly to study English. The couple married in 2001 and now live outside Philadelphia with their three children.

That first trip showed Lamaison (now Sears) who her new friend (and future husband) is today. It wasn’t just that they liked the same things. Crossing borders and going through customs, clearing security and changing money, Lamaison saw the man she would later marry: calm, respectful and organized.

“I just liked the way he handled himself,” she said. “You can see the values of a person in those situations.”

Tom and Ashley Wilmes took a romantic trip soon after they started dating. The risk worked out for them -- they married in 2006.