Welcome to the August 2007 issue of "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.

No Passports in Paradise

You now need a passport to fly nearly anywhere outside the U.S., but even if you haven't gotten around to getting one, there are still ways to escape to a tropical paradise.

 There are ways to enjoy a winter escape to a sunny tropical retreat—no passport required. You just have to be a little selective.

What's the trick? Visit the State Department website and look for "Traveling to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Panama, Mexico or Canada." Yes, it says that as of Jan. 23 you need a passport to go to those places. But if you look down the page you'll find that the requirement does not apply to U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas.

Tropical enough for you? And, they all take U.S. dollars.

The intro to the Virgin Islands tourism agency—http://www.usvitourism.vi/ —welcomes you with the sound of gentle surf and a "Multimedia Gallery" full of photos, videos and panoramas. The three islands offer a little bit of everything, from beaches for swimming and reefs for diving, to music and great food. They're also a duty-free shoppers paradise. You can get there on a half-dozen airlines or on cruise ships; click on "Travel & Transportation" for details. And if you don't want to stay in the usual posh resorts, hotels, inns or guest houses, you can even go camping on St. John; look for information on Cinnamon Bay—http://www.cinnamonbay.com/.

The USVI Hotel & Tourism Association—http://www.virgin-islands-hotels.com/—offers more details on places to stay, plus guides to scuba diving, nightlife and spas. And click on "Shopping" for more information on places to spend your money without paying duty.

Puerto Rico—is less than a 3-hour flight from Miami, or less than five hours from Chicago. Explore historic Old San Juan and the city's huge Fort San Felipe del Morro, or take in the lush tropical greenery of El Yunque Rainforest. Look under "Attractions" for details on these and other unique places, and for directions for your own walking tour of Old San Juan. Next, go to "Beaches & Activities" for descriptions of sunny shoreline spots including Luquillo on the eastern end of the island, or Flamenco on the nearby island of Culebra.

You might not have thought about the Northern Marianas—http://www.mymarianas.com/—but the diving is spectacular, with everything from coral reefs to World War II wrecks to explore. And you don't dive, there are acres of sandy beach to relax on and golf courses. Consult "Trip Essentials" for airlines to the islands, plus other essentials like the type of food available (more than 200 restaurants on the islands).

At the southern end of the Marianas chain, Guam—http://visitguam.org/—also has a wide variety of diving spots, including coral reefs and shipwrecks from both world wars. Click on "Activities" for guides to local attractions, tours, water sports and "Boonie Stomps" or hikes.

The American Samoa visitors' Web site—http://www.amsamoa.com/—is up one day and "down for reconstruction" the next, but give it a try. http://www.pagopago.com/—for a look at what you're missing. And see what there is to see and do at National Park of American Samoa—http://www.nps.gov/archive/npsa/visiting.htm—including tropical jungles and coral reefs. The Park Service also has more photos.

Wait. Don't forget Hawaii—a whole state full of islands where you can do everything from watching whales and surfers to exploring volcanoes, lush jungles and fabulous beaches.

And if you want to stay a little closer to home, remember that the Florida Keys are islands, too, with their own selection of diving, fishing, sailing and generally taking it easy. And unlike these other islands, you can drive to the Keys.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines Goes Smokeless

SMOKING WILL BE PROHIBITED in all cabins and one lounge on each ship in the Royal Caribbean International fleet beginning in January. The new smoking policy will go into effect on 18 of the line's 21 ships initially, and then be added to the Legend of the Seas, the Rhapsody of the Seas and the Splendour of the Seas in summer 2008. Smoking will still be permitted on cabin balconies. The company said that the changes reflect a more contemporary approach to healthier lifestyles

Flying in Europe? Checked Bags May Not Make It

It's the summer of lost luggage for anyone traveling in Europe.

So serious is the problem that travelers have been advised by the Association of European Airlines, which includes the major national carriers, to avoid checking bags altogether if possible and to take carry-on luggage instead.

The association released figures showing that an average of 10 passengers per flight lost bags between April and June. British Airways was cited as the worst among Europe's major airlines, and is on track to lose a record 1.3 million bags this year.

Compounding the problem is a shortage of baggage handlers at London's Heathrow, the world's third-busiest airport, where dozens of workers are being taken off duty each day to be trained on a new baggage system that will be used at a terminal scheduled to open next year.

Italian travelers faced similar luggage horrors this month at Rome's main Fiumicino Airport. And in the United States, reports of lost luggage soared by about 26 percent in June compared with a year earlier.

Several factors are contributing to the baggage breakdown. A spike in delayed flights means there is less time to correctly transfer baggage to connecting flights. Increased security screening of baggage and restrictions on carry-on bags also play a part
and the situation is unlikely to improve soon.

The simple fact is that there are more people traveling by air. And the growth of budget airlines, most of which don't transfer bags between airlines, requires passengers to check and recheck bags."

Absurd Travel Rules That Should Be Jettisoned

From airlines to hotels to car rental companies, no industry is immune

You don’t have to be a card-carrying frequent flier to know that the travel business is littered with silly little rules that make no sense whatsoever. Actually, it helps that you’re not a grizzled veteran of the skies, because most hard-core business travelers have come to accept these absurd policies, even though they know how wrong, wrong, wrong they are.
From time to time, you might even catch one of these old road warriors in the act of defending the rules when a less experienced leisure traveler has the impertinence to wonder why things are the way they are.
“Don’t you know?” they’ll sniff, “You can’t transfer your airline ticket to a friend.”

Oh, but why not?
Start asking questions like that, and you’re bound to make folks in the travel industry squirm. That’s because there are no valid reasons for having these policies. Here, then, are five things the travel industry won’t let you do — but should:

Change the name on your airline ticket
Let’s say you buy a set of plane tickets to vacation somewhere with your sweetie. But just before your trip, the relationship turns sour. Your airline may sympathize, but it won’t let you transfer the ticket to another friend — even if you paid for it. The reason? Well, air carriers disingenuously claim that they prohibit name changes because they’re worried about security and potential fraud.
But what they won’t tell you is they’re also worried about their earnings. Making airline tickets transferable could cost the domestic airline industry more than $1 billion in monthly revenues, according to an estimate by San Diego, Calif.-based Innovation Analysis Group.
OK, that may be a tall order, even for an industry that’s currently wallowing in profits. But perhaps a good start would be to allow people who have made honest mistakes — like making a reservation under their nickname or maiden name — to fix their tickets. Those passengers now pay hefty change fees, and in many cases, have to buy brand-new tickets. How about giving those passengers a little break?

Carry a bottle of water through a TSA screening area
The Transportation Security Administration’s prohibition of carry-on liquids and gels should have been stricken from the books months ago, when the government agency decided to replace its outright ban on liquids with one that’s difficult to understand — and enforce. (If you’re still a little confused about what “toiletries of three ounces or less that fit comfortably in one quart-size, clear plastic, zip-top bag” are, you’re not alone.)
Now, instead of looking for terrorist hijackers, our federalized airport screeners are busy confiscating toothpaste, perfume and bottled water. I haven’t seen any conclusive evidence that the liquid and gel ban is protecting us from the bad guys. What I have seen are a lot of needless confrontations between TSA agents and frustrated air travelers, including the highly publicized sippy-cup incident that got Monica Emmerson and her toddler in hot water recently.
Maybe the government needs to buy a clue and realize that the villains have moved on to some other way of blowing up a plane. It’s time for them to move on, too.

Use any part of an airline ticket you want
Here’s another ill-conceived airline rule: Most carriers require their passengers to use every segment of their ticket. If you don’t, they could cancel the remaining portion of your ticket or, in extreme cases, bill you or your travel agent for the fare difference.
These tariff rules make perfect sense for airlines. They use a complex and counterintuitive pricing system called “yield management” that often churns out some truly bizarre fares. A one-way ticket, for example, can cost more than a round-trip fare. A cross-country flight is sometimes cheaper than a short commuter flight. In order to make sure everyone pays these crazy prices, airlines say you must use every flight segment on your ticket exactly as you booked it. (One of my favorite examples is Northwest Airlines — check out Rule 70, part C of its General Rules — which warns that circumventing its tariff rules could result having your frequent flier miles confiscated or being denied boarding. Ouch!)
But the rule makes absolutely no sense for passengers. I can think of no other business that tries to control how its product is used the way that airlines do. It’s about time to jettison this customer-hostile rule.

Return your rental car early without being charged more
Common sense tells you that if you return a rental car early, you should get a partial refund on your bill. But common sense doesn’t necessarily apply to the travel industry. For example, Alamo Rent A Car, not only charges a $15-per-day early-return fee, but it also recalculates your rate, charging you the same price that walk-up customers pay to rent a car without prior reservation. (In one case, that added $361 to one customer’s bill).
Now, I can understand charging a nominal early-return fee and likening it to a restocking fee charged by stores. But asking for more money for less of a product? That’s travel industry logic, but it doesn’t fly with travelers. Time to junk that rule.

Not pay a hotel’s resort fee
I’ve never met a hotel guest who likes paying a mandatory resort fee, which is a surcharge that covers little extras like beach towels, in-room coffeemakers and exercise equipment. The fees can add anywhere from 10 to 20 percent to the cost of your room. Hotels are not always up-front about the surcharges. Instead of quoting them as part of the room rate, they wait until after you’ve asked for a price, and then say, “Oh, by the way ... there’s a $15 a day resort fee. Here’s the real room rate.” In some cases, they wait until you’ve checked in to tell you about it. Not very sporting of them.

Charging extra for amenities that should be included in the hotel room is ludicrous. But not nearly as ludicrous as forcing every guest to pay for these amenities, whether they use them or not. The most-forward looking hotels have already either scrapped their resort fees or made them optional. Call me old-fashioned, but I think resort fees should take a permanent vacation.

Next time you run into a rule that doesn’t make sense, don’t be afraid to ask “why”? If enough people do, the travel industry might actually start listening.

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

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