Welcome to the April 2010 issue of "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.

Mexico Travel Safety

Stay safe while traveling in Mexico

Most people who travel to Mexico have a wonderful time and don't encounter any problems. However, as in other tourist destinations throughout the world, crime is a fact of life, and as a tourist you may be targeted for theft. In order to increase your chances of having a safe and pleasant vacation, follow these tips for Mexico travel safety.

Before you leave:
•Research your destination. The US State Department's Web site has information about Mexico as well as current warnings and public announcements regarding safety issues for travelers. World Travel Watch also offers frequently updated reports.

•As you're packing, think twice about taking valuables with you. If they're not essential, they're probably better off left at home. This will also make for lighter bags, allowing you greater ease of movement which can deter potential thieves.

•Scan your passport and travel documents and e-mail them to yourself. That way, if your documents are lost or stolen you can easily access copies from your e-mail.

•Take your bank or credit card's international telephone number with you (the 1-800 numbers used in the United States don't work in Mexico).

•Leave a copy of your itinerary with someone at home, but don't share details of your travel plans with others you meet while traveling.

•Buy a money belt (not a fanny pack) to carry your money and passport underneath your clothing.

•Credit or debit cards are the most convenient way to access your money while traveling, but losing your card (or having it swallowed by a cash machine) can be a great inconvenience, so have a back-up plan. Take some travelers cheques (or a small amount of cash) just in case.

While you're there:
•Blend in as much as possible. Walking around with a camera around your neck and a guidebook in your hand advertises your tourist status and may make you a mark for thieves. Try to be discreet.

•Choose ATMs in malls or stores if possible. Avoid using ATMs at night or in deserted places. When you withdraw money from an ATM put it away immediately.

•Carry only the cash you need for the moment in your pocket or purse. Carry your passport, credit card and extra money inside your clothes in a money-belt, or leave them in your hotel's safe. When you need to get something out of your money belt do it in a private place.

•Exercise particular caution when in crowds, markets or on public transportation. Pickpockets can be very crafty and sometimes work in pairs - one person will distract you while another takes your wallet.

•Ask your hotel manager or another knowledgeable person if there are some areas of the city you should avoid.

In Mexico City you should avoid hailing cabs in the street. Ask your hotel to call a cab for you. They will take note of the number of the taxi and the driver's name. At the airport and bus stations in Mexico City and other major cities there are official taxis (Taxis Autorizados) that you should take.

New Rule May Add More Misery to Air Travel

The upside is that new government rules may make it less likely you’ll be stranded for hours inside an airplane this summer. The down side is that you might be grounded for days.

The new rule that goes into effect next week says passengers will have the right to get off a plane if its stuck on a tarmac for three hours (unless de-planning would be a safety hazard).

“Two airlines — Continental and US Airways — are already telling pilots to return planes to the gate in time to beat the deadline,” reports the AP.

Airline officials say hundreds of flights are likely to be canceled at the hint of bad weather as carriers try to avoid potential fines in the millions of dollars for violating the three-hour rule. If planes are full this summer, as expected, bumped travelers may have trouble finding empty seats on later flights.

The nation's airlines, which adamantly oppose the rule, say it is going to cause passengers more hardship because it will lead to even more flights being canceled. That isn't a threat, says David Castelveter, vice president of the Air Transport Association of America, "but rather reality."

"Some will err on the side of caution and pre-emptively cancel flights, stranding passengers,” predicts Castelveter.

Airlines are particularly concerned about airports in New York and Philadelphia, where delays from construction projects and ongoing air-traffic congestion are expected to back up flights.

Delays longer than three hours are generally rare. In 2009, the government counted 903 out of more than 6.4 million flights — one for every 7,143, leading some experts to say the new law is not needed.

"The misery index for airline passengers is definitely going to go up," said David Stempler, an aviation lawyer and president of the Air Travelers Association.

There are also two sides predicting the summer outcome. Some experts -- including the airlines -- predict days-long delays may not be unusual. But others say cancellations aren't likely because financially strapped carriers won't risk losing revenue and passenger loyalty at a time they desperately need both.

The new rules mean airlines now have a powerful financial incentive to cancel flights early. The maximum penalty for violating the new rules is $27,500 per passenger per day. For a fully loaded medium-sized jetliner such as a Boeing 737, that adds up to more than $3.5 million. However, government officials say they rarely impose the maximum penalties.

Who’s right? More lengthy and possibly costly delays or not?

Travelers won't know until the first big summer thunderstorm paralyzes a major hub. Weather is recognized as the biggest cause of long tarmac delays.

No-Show Rental Car Fees Loom

While U.S. corporate car rental rates remain fairly stable, buyers are facing a tougher negotiating environment than they've seen in several years and soon may have to examine policies to brace for a new type of cost: the no-show fee.

Car rental companies—outside of Europe, at least—are among the few travel suppliers that do not charge a penalty for canceling bookings within a certain timeframe. However, at least one major supplier, Avis Budget Group, already has begun testing such fees on a small scale.It's been standard across the rest of the industry, with hotels and airlines with nonrefundable tickets, so it's just a matter of time.

Avis Budget Group last year reported that it had begun working with global distribution systems to allow them to procure credit card information upon booking. Senior vice president of commercial sales Bob Lambert said the company already is testing the fees, labeled as non-cancellation fees, in "small city markets for Web-only, non-corporate-type business."

Further expansion would be done slowly, You won't see them just flip a switch and say, Here's the non-cancellation fee, The soonest you would see them in that situation would be the fourth quarter of 2010."

So far, no other major car rental company has publicly made motions toward such fees. "We still don't intend to introduce anything like that in the foreseeable future," said Brad Carr, vice president of business rental development for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which also owns the National and Alamo brands.

Other companies either will see the fees as a positive source of revenue and follow suit, or they will determine a benefit from being an outlier in not charging the fees, as Southwest Airlines has done with checked-bag fees.

Avis Budget's gradual rollout is a good strategy to gauge a competitive response. The question is, if they get some pushback or resistance, will they hold their resolve?

Though a potential budget headache for corporate travel programs, car rental no-show fees are not without merit. Car rental suppliers incur a GDS fee for a booking even if the traveler never shows up. Those can add up to a significant cost, he said. As the fees become more common, companies should be able to avoid incurring them with simple communication

The fees are the latest sign that the car rental industry is becoming increasingly focused on cost controls and yield management strategies. Companies have significantly trimmed fleets and cut costs, making the industry stronger than it's been in years.

Bumped From Your Flight? You've Got Rights

Overbooking is a common practice by the airlines. If you are bumped or asked to take a later flight, it pays to know your rights and the airline's responsibilities. airlines are operating fewer flights this summer, meaning that planes are packed even with the slump in travel.

Often the airlines sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane. Last year, more than 63,000 passengers were bumped, according to government figures, and this year is shaping up as more of the same. So what should you do if you get bumped? What if your flight is delayed so long that you miss your niece's wedding?

Before bargaining with the gate agent over travel vouchers and upgrades, it pays to know your rights and the airline's responsibilities.

The federal government sets rules on bumping and occasionally fines airlines for breaking them. This month, the Transportation Department fined Delta Air Lines $375,000, although it may waive about half if Delta improves its procedures for handling oversold flights.

Airlines must ask for volunteers first, and pay passengers who are bumped against their will.

If you are bumped from a domestic flight, the airline must pay you the price of a one-way ticket up to $400 cash if you are rescheduled to reach your destination between one and two hours of the original arrival time. The maximum doubles to $800 if it takes longer. Some passengers with time to kill don't mind getting bumped. They hope to get cash, travel vouchers or an upgrade to first-class in exchange for taking a slightly later flight.

The best flights to haggle over are late-afternoon or evening ones popular with business travelers who can't afford to be stranded overnight. Airlines are likely to offer more for passengers who give up a seat on a New York-Chicago run than on a flight full of vacationers from Atlanta to Orlando.

Gate agents may put out a sign or simply tell passengers that they're looking for volunteers to skip the flight. It's often best to ignore their first offer and wait until departure time nears, and the bidding gets stronger, That's when it goes from $100 off your next flight to maybe $300 and a business-class seat on the next flight out.

Be careful about accepting travel vouchers. They might be hard to redeem, especially at peak travel periods. Make sure you understand any limitations.

Travelers are often baffled why airlines can sell more tickets than they have seats. Airlines oversell flights because some passengers buy costly fully refundable tickets on more than one flight and then only use one. Other flights are overbooked because the airline had to substitute a smaller plane with fewer seats.

While there are federal rules on bumping, there is no sweeping requirement for airlines to provide hotel rooms and meals for passengers who are stranded overnight, even if it's the carrier's fault, according to the Transportation Department. But you can haggle.

It's up to the discretion of the carrier and the (gate) agent. Some airlines will do their best if you ask nicely and you ask privately you'll do better than if you make a scene. When a long delay appears obvious, you should ask to be rebooked on another airline.

Veteran travelers say if a long delay will cause you to miss the reason for your trip a wedding or business meeting, for example ask for a refund. However, there is no law requiring the airline to give you a refund.

Since airline travel is often stressful, and summer always brings many delays, have a Plan B. Know what flights are available if yours is canceled. If your flight is pushed back or scrubbed, hop on your laptop or phone to see if you can rebook.

Remember: Without a travel agent you're on your own.

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