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


Ways To Survive A Holiday Flight

 

'Tis the season ... for long lines and frayed nerves. Santa may not have to fly commercial, but you do. Here's how to cope.
 

Path of least resistance
The days on either side of Christmas are like something out of Halloween, consider flying home on December 25. Airports and planes are much less crowded.

Don't get stuck
It's worth paying more to fly nonstop. The combination of crowds and bad weather is a tinderbox: One big storm and the system explodes.

In with the in crowd
Join all loyalty clubs, even if you don't care about the points/miles. You'll get treated better, particularly if the hotel or car rental agency is overbooked.

A spot of one's own
Airport parking lots are more likely to be full around Christmas and New Year's. Look into private parking lots located off airport premises (airportparkingreservations.com). They'll often guarantee a spot, they have free shuttles to and from the terminal, and they're cheaper.

Losing the wait
This is when airports get more people than they were built to handle. You can -- and should -- check in online up to 24 hours in advance. Just go to the carrier's Web site; you'll be walked through checking in and printing your boarding pass. If you're not checking bags, you'll be able to go straight to the gate. But it's a good idea even if you are checking bags, because many airlines have bag drops where, if you've checked in, you can hand over bags without waiting in the main line.

Ease your burden
Ship gifts ahead so that you don't have to check bags. Airlines and airports aren't handling bags as quickly or as reliably as they used to.

Time on your side
Go to the airport earlier than normal. Airport security is a nightmare around the holidays because of the sheer number of people and the fact that many of them are infrequent, inexperienced fliers.

No secrets
Wrap any gifts after you arrive. The TSA reserves the right to open anything.

Speaking of the TSA ...
The rules for carrying on liquids and gels are confusing and not uniformly enforced. You can bring as many containers as you want, provided they all hold three ounces or less and fit in a single one-quart Ziploc bag. Containers do not need to have the manufacturer's label.

The secure zone
If you want to bring water or other drinks, buy them once you've passed through airport security.

Nice guys disembark last
I wish we lived in a world where you were guaranteed overhead space near your seat. Until we do, I refuse to store my bag behind me, because I'll never get off the plane. Look ahead while you board: If the space above your seat is full, put your stuff as close to it as possible, and don't be afraid to take someone else's space. After all, someone took yours.

The pickup game
The days of circling the arrivals area are thankfully coming to an end. More and more airports have "cell phone lots" where drivers can park for free and then wait for arriving passengers to call. Use them!

      
Bill Would Delay Canada Passport Rule

 

Passports won't be necessary for Americans and Canadians entering the United States by land until mid-2009 — a year later than planned — if a budget bill passed Thursday by Congress gets the approval of President Bush.
 

A provision of a budget bill passed Thursday pushes back by a year the plan by the Department of Homeland Security to require passports from border crossers from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean as a way of strengthening national security.
 

The Western Hemisphere Travel Iniative, as the plan is known, is designed to close a major security vulnerability on the nation's borders, said Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa."We've always been committed to moving forward deliberately to implement the land and sea portion of WHTI just as we did with the air portion," said Kudwa. "We anticipate a final rule in the coming weeks and phasing in elements of the plan in the summer of '08."

She said full implementation would follow "as soon as possible consistent with the law."
 

Even though the passport requirement is likely to be postponed, You will still need birth certificates or similar identification to enter the United States by land beginning Jan. 31.The passport requirement is part of efforts by Homeland Security to tighten security at the nation's borders.

 
The ABC’s Of ATM’s Abroad

It used to be automatic. Along with passports and airline tickets, travelers would not leave home without their travelers' checks. These days, with fewer merchants accepting traveler's checks and the relatively high fees for buying and cashing them, many travelers have moved to credit, debit, and ATM cards as their source of funds while on the road. Here are some tips for international transactions.

  • Visa and Mastercard charge a one percent fee for foreign transactions, and most banks tack on an additional two percent to convert the transactions to US dollars. Check with your credit, debit and ATM card providers to determine which of your cards are most travel-friendly, or sign up for a new card with a provider that waives or reduces the fees (for example, Capital One adds no fee, and absorbs the one percent Visa and Mastercard charge, and Wachovia charges just the one percent.)
  • Make sure you have ample available credit and/or funds deposited, and check expiration dates on the cards you have chosen. Remember, many foreign ATM's accept four-digit PINs only, and typically don't display letters on the keyboards. If you use a word to remember your PIN, memorize the numeric equivalent before leaving home.
  • Unusual foreign transactions may be flagged as fraudulent, so let your credit, debit and ATM card providers know of your travel plans to avoid a freeze on your account. Take more than one card with you to ensure that you have an alternative should your account be frozen.
  • Make a list of convenient ATM locations in your destination cities before you go. Both Visa and Mastercard have on-line worldwide ATM locators covering more than 210 countries. Make sure that your ATM card displays a Visa, Mastercard, Cirrus or Plus logo for worldwide acceptance.
  • Prepaid debit cards are a safe, albeit more expensive, alternative to a traditional debit or ATM card. You simply purchase the value needed ahead of time and use in ATM machines while traveling. Since the card is not connected to your checking account, there is no danger of being wiped out should it be stolen or lost, but there are usually extra fees involved.
  • Make all of your purchases in local currency, and beware of merchants offering to convert your purchases into US dollars. These merchants typically inflate the exchange rates by as much as five percent.
  • Cash-to-Cash machines are common, especially in Europe. They look like ATM's - the difference being that you feed in currency rather than a card. While they seem very convenient, they are best avoided as they charge inflated exchange rates. The same is true for the currency exchange booths at many international airports.
Exchange rates and commission fees can be very expensive when converting foreign currency back to US funds, so try to limit your cash withdrawals to just what you need. Use your remaining currency for a last lunch or souvenir, or tuck it away for your next trip.

  
Avoiding Three Destination Travel Scams

Travel Scams -- Here, There and Everywhere

What do you think of when you hear the words "travel scam"? Maybe you think of the faxes advertising amazingly low fares for a vacation that expires that evening. (If you call, you'd find out that your travel is free but your hotel stay is charged at an incredibly high rate.)

Or maybe you think about the mail that comes in express mail-looking envelopes announcing you won a fabulous free cruise in a lottery you don't remember entering. (If you call, you'd find out that in order to collect your prize, you'd have to attend seminars at your expense, or make purchases for things at highly inflated prices.)

 But what about travel scams that happen once you arrive at your destination?

Thieves and tricksters are forever coming up with new ways to scam travelers, so it's important to find out about these scams before you travel.

We'll discuss three of the most common -- and sneaky -- travel scams today; these scams can absolutely ruin an otherwise delightful travel experience.

1. Front Desk Credit Card Confusion Scam

Anyone who has tried to see a city in a day and a half or cram 2 days of work into a 12-hour business trip knows what that kind of marathon activity can entail.

Imagine that it's the end of your long day of frenzy, and you're settling in for the evening in your hotel room. You're drifting off to sleep when the phone rings. It's the front desk clerk asking for your help in verifying some information.

The "front desk clerk" (aka scammer) apologizes for the late hour, but explains that at shift change some forms were left unfinished. She needs to confirm that the form she has is yours, and that the information is correct.

She asks if the last four digits of your credit card are 5678. You groggily reach for your wallet and pull out the card. No, you say, those aren't the last four digits.

Hmmm, she responds, seeming perplexed. She then asks if you could just read the card number to her. You're sleepy so you don't pause before responding when she asks for the expiration date as well.

With a joyous Aha, she tells you that she has found your form. She thanks you profusely, apologizes again and assures you that all the information is now straightened out.

You hang up and drift back to sleep, not realizing that you have just been scammed by a con artist.

It might only be when your credit card is declined the next time you use it that you realize you've been scammed.

Action: Never give your card number out over the phone at a hotel. Ask for the name of someone to speak to and tell the caller that you'll come down in the morning to straighten it out. Don't offer to call the desk from your room and then feel safe giving the card number. For all you know, the thief is calling from a temporarily abandoned front-desk station.

2. Taxi Cabs or Scam Mobiles?

Once when leaving the main train station in Rome, Italy, a traveler was heading for the Taxi Stand when she looked up to see an incredible line. She estimated that it would be at least a 30-minute wait. Our friend probably sighed, visibly. She was immediately approached by a nicely dressed man who offered her a ride and a bypass of the line by saying, "taxi?"

She could have taken the offer. But fortunately, she had heard about this scam beforehand.

Never take a taxi ride from someone who is not in an official, metered taxi cab. Doing so risks not just your wallet -- but your safety.

Scam artists have been known to pose as taxi drivers and take off with your luggage. They have also taken unsuspecting tourists to a deserted area and then robbed and/or assaulted them.

At the very least, even if you're lucky and avoid violence or theft, you'll still be charged at least 4 or 5 times what the rate should be for the taxi ride.

Any taxi cab should have the car number and company marked on the outside, a registration and driver information card displayed on or near the dashboard, and should either have on display or offer on request a list of charges.

Make yourself familiar with the rate list when you first get into the cab. If possible, make your examination of the rate list obvious. Both these actions will help prevent the driver from getting any "bright" ideas.

If you're not sure about where to catch a taxi or whether or not you were properly charged, ask at your hotel. If you think you were scammed, try to record identifying information about the driver and/or the vehicle so you can report it to the police.

Action: Never accept rides from individuals who don't have licensed, metered taxis.

3. Hotel "Representatives"

This scam is similar to the Taxi scam.

The voices will start as soon as you disembark from the plane, train, boat or bus: "Hotel?" or "Room? You need a room?" will begin floating towards you any time you arrive in a major tourist destination transportation hub.

Much like the taxi cab scam above, be wary of those who approach you offering hotel rooms. These scammers may wear a laminated badge, carry a notebook or even have brochures about their hotels. (Very likely, they made these on their home computer.)

They'll offer you a great rate, showing you the colorful pictures in the brochures, and then offer to take you to the hotel.

Once again, you're in danger of losing your luggage or your wallet, and violence can occur with this scam as well.

Alternatively, once you arrive at the hotel (tired and ready to go to sleep), the hotel clerk will apologetically inform you that the rate promised is magically all filled for the evening -- but they have rooms ready for you at twice the promised rate.

Once you wearily agree and head to the room, your "representative" will be handed a hefty tip by the clerk.

You're best off making your own reservations by phone and confirming rates with a credit card. Make sure you get a confirmation number that you can show upon checking in.

Action: If you arrive in a city without a reservation, avoid these lone representatives. Look for the nearest tourist information office or hit the nearest phone booth with your travel guidebook in hand.

Now that you know about them, you can avoid these three destination travel scams. Have a great -- and safe -- Christmas and a happy New Year.


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


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