Welcome to the June 2008 issue of "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.
For The First Time Cruiser
planned and booked your first cruise or considering a cruise? Life
on board a ship is like nothing else and can be intimidating for a
first-timer. Here are some tips on what to expect.
Try to get to your departure port the day before you are leaving.
Then, if anything delays you or your luggage, you won't miss your
cruise. Most cruise ships dock in the early morning at their final
destination. The arriving passengers disembark, and the ship is
cleaned and restocked for another group.
You will go through several lines at the cruise ship terminal.
First, you will be in line to check in with the cruise line. When
you present your ticket, a photo ID or passport, and a credit card,
you will be given an electronic room key that you will also use to
charge purchases and drinks on the ship. You will also have your
picture taken, and most cruise lines electronically imbed your photo
onto your ID card. No matter what the cruise line publishes, most
ships are ready to receive passengers around noon. Because many
people arrive around noon, most ships set up a nice buffet lunch.
This may or may not be publicized by the cruise line, but it is
usually there. This is a chance to check in early, have a good meal,
and explore the ship prior to getting underway.
Now the bad news. You aren't the only passenger who has this
information. The gangway is going to be very crowded with people
wanting to get on the ship early. Waits of one hour or longer are
very common. And in some cases, you'll wait in the sun or in the
rain. Don't get to the pier at noon or even one o'clock for
a five o'clock departure. Take it easy, relax in town, and then
leisurely stroll onto the ship around two o'clock or even three
o'clock. The lines will be gone, and you'll feel more like royalty
than being part of a human wave.
If you are flying to the departure city the day before your cruise
and your travel agent arranged a package from the cruise line it
should include the cruise, air and transfers from the airport to
your hotel and from the hotel to the dock the next day and back to
the airport at the end of your cruise. If you are flying in the same
day you will have transfers from the airport to the dock and back to
the airport. Even if you arrange for your own air travel, your agent
can get the transfers. Let the cruise line worry about getting you
from point A to point B. And you'll probably save money.
Debarkation -- Getting off of the Ship to return Home
First, plan your return flight home for five or six hours after the
ship docks. Give yourself time for an unhurried return to the real
world. Ships can be delayed in docking, and you don't need to end
your wonderful vacation with a stress-filled sprint through the
Many cruise passengers treat debarkation as the human equivalent of
a road race. They want to be the "line leaders" in getting off the
ship, and they want off NOW. The cruise line also wants to help get
you off of the ship as quickly as possible. Quite frankly, you're in
their way on the final morning of your cruise. Just follow their
directions, and you'll have plenty of time to make your flight home.
The day before your ship docks, you will be given color coded tags
for your suitcases. The color coding system places you in a specific
group for disembarking.
On your last night on board your cruise ship, you will have to pack
your suitcases and place them in the corridor outside your cabin
before you go to bed. You will attach color coded tags to each of
your suitcases. You will need to keep a small, carry-on bag with you
on your last night, which will hold your toiletries and your next
day's clothing. As you sleep on your last night, the ship's crew
collects all of the baggage from the corridors and takes it down to
the hold where it is ready to be taken ashore. When the ship docks
early the next morning, the baggage is taken ashore and placed in
groupings in the cruise terminal by the color of the tags you have
been given. Customs agents and drug enforcement agents with
drug-sniffing dogs wander through the baggage, looking for
suspicious luggage. Some bags are also opened at random and are
On your final morning, most cruise lines allow you to remain in your
cabin until your color-coded group is called. You can visit the
breakfast buffet and return to your cabin to wait, or (our
favorite), you can preorder room service and eat breakfast in your
As you leave the ship, you will enter the passenger terminal. In
front of you will be a sea of luggage, separated into groups by the
colors of the tags. Remember those colored straps we advised you to
buy in our packing tips section? They will now help you find your
luggage quickly. Once you have your suitcases, you will hand your
customs form to an agent and leave the terminal.
Notorious Rental Car Fee
Running On Empty?
I hope you're sitting down while you read this. One of America's
largest rental car companies is about to eliminate one of the
vacation industry's most notorious hidden fees. And I'm about to
lavish it with praise.
Hertz last week announced it would stop charging car renters an
arm and a leg for gasoline when they return rental cars with
half-full tanks. You know the drill: When you rent the car, you’re
given a Russian-Roulette kind of choice: 1) paying up front for gas,
thereby paying for more than you will use; 2) agreeing to fill the
tank yourself and running the risk that you will be too late to do
it; or 3) paying for the rental firm to refill the car after you
drop it off. Those after-rent gas prices have been ludicrously high
for years, generally about double the street price for a gallon of
gas. Currently, Hertz refuel prices are about $8 per gallon in many
locations, making travelers liable for surprise fill-up charges of
$100 or more.
But beginning July 1, that will change at Hertz. Renters will
instead pay fair market value for gas plus a $6.99 fee for the
refueling service. That will end one of biggest hassles that
travelers face -- the desperate search for a gas station near the
airport while trying to leave enough time to check in and clear
airport security checkpoints.
Hurray for Hertz, which as the world's largest consumer rental
firm has the power to steer the industry in the right direction.
Consumers should consider renting from the firm, even if its rates
are slightly higher, because they won't be on the hook for the
refueling "gotcha" any longer. That’s a valuable feature. It will be
interesting to see if the company actually benefits from doing the
right thing. I hope so.
The move is not entirely born of largesse. Earlier this month,
the Maryland state attorney general forced all rental car firms in
the state to substantially lower their refueling penalties. In
Maryland, rental firms must now limit their refueling price to about
140 percent of the prevailing market price. The agreement lowered
the per-gallon gas charge at most firms from $8 down to a little
less than $6.
"As a result of these agreements, Maryland will have among the
lowest, if not the lowest, rental vehicle refueling charges in the
nation," Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said while making the
announcement. It's good to see that state enforcement agencies can
recognize eggregious practices and force change. It's too bad
Maryland or some other state didn't take the same tack a few decades
ago, but better late than never.
Skyrocketing fuel prices helped draw attention to rental car
companies' crazed pricing practices. When gas was $1.40, $2.80
refueling prices didn't seem quite so bad, but $8-per-gallon prices
“Car rental companies realize that motorists have had it with gas
prices, and they are running out of patience,” said Catherine Rossi,
spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association’s Mid-Atlantic
office. “We are pleased that the Maryland attorney general’s office
addressed this with the car rental companies and we hope other
attorneys general will follow suit.”
Hertz deal even better
But Hertz has gone farther than Maryland required, offering a better
price and extending the deal to the rest of the country. The firm
claims its new pricing plan has nothing to do with the threat of
legal action in Maryland. Even if that's a fib, I don't care. Hertz
has seen the light. Now let's see if other rental car firms are
forced to play nice. So far, Hertz's top competitors haven't
extended their new, low refueling prices outside of Maryland.
"We’re taking a close look at it, but do not have a decision to
announce at this time," said John Barrows, vice president of
communications at Avis Budget Group.
Here's a case where the light hand of government intervention
could really help a market function properly. Let's say Avis,
Budget, and other competitors stick to their guns and continue with
crazy refueling prices. Hertz will obviously lose money on this
deal, and be put at a competitive disadvantage. It will likely raise
prices slightly to cover the revenue lost through the new policy.
That means consumers who search for rental cars at travel sites
might be tricked into renting a car at a slightly lower up-front
price, but one that comes with the risk of a high penalty fee at the
end of the rental. As a result Hertz’s competitors will rank higher
in search engines that sort by price. That's unfair to Hertz, when
its ultimate rental price might be cheaper.
It would be better for Hertz, and I would argue better for the
entire industry, to have state attorneys general from all around the
country, or the Federal Trade Commission, step in and say, "$8 gas
prices are obviously unfair, and this practice must end."
Enforcement of a simple rule that's already in many state lawbooks,
which says that penalty charges must be aligned with actual costs
incurred by the company, would suffice. And it would create a level
Perhaps that will happen on its own. Perhaps consumers will react
so positively to Hertz's new policy that other car renters will have
to imitate it. We'll have to wait and see.
Red Tape Wrestling Tips
*It's important to note that it will still be cheaper for you in
most cases to fill the tank yourself than to let Hertz do it for
you. Hertz's fair pricing simply provides a nice insurance policy if
you are running late to the airport. One other note from Hertz's
announcement: The firm is also offering small discounts to those who
buy their gas up front when renting a car -- 15 cents per gallon off
prevailing market price. That deal sounds tempting, and it might be
convenient for business travelers, but those who pre-pay for a full
tank usually lose because renters cannot return the car with an
empty tank. Whatever's left in the tank is free gas for the rental
*Other rental car companies are also offering pre-paid gas
discounts too. In some cases, these discounts might make sense --
those with large SUVs planning on car vacations might be better off
renting a small car with this cheaper rental car gas.
*In the meantime, Hertz and other rental car companies are
capitalizing on consumers' fixation with gas prices and offering
various "free gas" deals. At Hertz, for example, renters booking a
minimum of three days can get a free tank of gas at some locations.
Look for similar deals from other renters.
Airlines To Require Minimum Stays
No. 2 U.S. carrier also raising cheapest fares by as much as $90
United Airlines said Friday it will start requiring minimum stays
for nearly all domestic coach seats beginning in October. It is also
raising its cheapest fares by as much as $90 one-way.
The second-largest U.S. carrier said the moves are among a number of
changes, including flight and job cutbacks, it is making to combat
record high fuel prices.
The Chicago-based airline has been among the industry's most
aggressive in pushing fares and fees higher in recent months, and
those efforts have often been matched by other carriers. The
industry is scrambling to raise revenue in a fight to forestall what
is projected to be a record multibillion industrywide loss this
Starting Oct. 6, most of United's economy-class fares will require a
one- to three-night or weekend-night minimum stay. The policy does
not apply to fliers in other classes. The new rules are bound to be
unpopular with business travelers who prefer to catch a flight out
early in the morning so they can be back home in time for dinner.
It's one thing to simply raise fares. It's quite another to do it by
imposing restrictions that appear to make it harder to conveniently
fly. Major carriers scrapped most minimum-stay rules — put in place
largely to discourage big-budget corporate travelers from snatching
up the cheapest seats — at the start of the decade, although United
and other airlines recently started bringing the overnight rules
back piecemeal. Friday's changes are far more sweeping because they
also apply to highly competitive routes where United goes
head-to-head against lower-cost rivals such as Southwest Airlines
and JetBlue Airways.
How long passengers have to stay under United's new minimum-stay
policy will depend on the destinations involved, the price of the
ticket and the length of the flight. United also has raised its
lowest fares by $1 to $90 one-way, meaning the least expensive
available United ticket will now cost travelers $69 to $199 one-way,
depending on the length of the flight.
United and US Airways last week joined American Airlines in charging
passengers $15 to check their first piece of luggage. Like a number
of other carriers, United also tacks on a fuel surcharge onto many
tickets that can range from $5 to $75 on-way.
No One Knows Better Then The Police
Criminals Are Using To Prey On Unsuspecting
BARCELONA You're pretty safe walking anywhere in the main tourist
areas, but be wary of strangers who are a little too friendly, says
a police spokeswoman who was not authorized to give her name. If
someone asks how you like Barcelona or tries to hug you, hold on to
your valuables tightly: Pickpockets use techniques like these to
throw people off guard. The police department has a special unit
that roams crowded areas like La Rambla disguised as tourists, right
down to the maps and cameras, to watch for thieves in action.
CANCÚN The vendors selling jewelry on the beach will say just about
anything to get you to buy their merchandise. Police say you should
be skeptical of their claims. Jewelry sellers often tell tourists
that their wares are made of real silver and then quote prices
starting at around $20, says Verónica Fajardo, a spokeswoman for the
Cancún police. But she points out that the jewelry is almost always
made from cheap metal that will turn yellow or lose its sheen within
weeks. "Tourists from the U.S. and Canada are always looking for a
bargain," Fajardo says. "They might get a cheaper price [on the
beach], but the jewelry is definitely not of the highest quality."
LAS VEGAS If your cab ride from the airport to the Strip takes more
than 20 minutes, you've probably been the victim of a "long haul,"
in which the driver chooses a circuitous route to jack up the fare,
says police officer José Montoya. The state taxi authority says
reports of long hauling are on the rise. Police urge anyone who
believes he's been taken for a ride to file a complaint at
LONDON Always take the city's old-fashioned black cabs, which are
licensed by the city, rather than the so-called "minicabs" that
sometimes wait outside theaters, restaurants, and bars at night,
says Scotland Yard spokesman Alan Crockford. In 2006, an average of
10 women a month were assaulted by the drivers of minicabs,
according to the most recent data available from the London
Metropolitan Police. Minicabs belonging to a car service are
licensed, but even those cars are only legally permitted to pick up
passengers who have called to make a reservation¿they can't stop for
people on the street. Contact the Transport for London office
(011-44/20-7222-1234, tfl.gov.uk) if you
want a list of licensed minicab company numbers, Crockford says.
MONTREAL Police commander Alain Simoneau says the theft of stereos,
laptops, iPods, and GPS devices from unlocked cars is a huge
problem. Cars in Old Montreal are often targeted, and Simoneau says
you should put your belongings in the trunk when you park there.
Police officers have begun placing pamphlets on car windshields and
in restaurants in the area as a reminder for tourists to lock up.
Not doing so could even cost you money. Leaving your doors unlocked
is against the law in the province of Quebec and punishable by a
fine of at least $30.00
NEW ORLEANS A common scam in the French Quarter goes something like
this: A man approaches you and says, "Bet you $5 that I can tell you
where you got your shoes!" Whether you accept the bet or not, he
adds, "On your feet on Bourbon Street," and demands the money.
Authorities say some people pay up just to avoid a confrontation. If
a stranger tries to entice you into a bet, police officer Shereese
Harper suggests you keep walking and don't say a word—responding
encourages the scam artist to harass you.
ORLANDO Be wary of discounted, multiday theme-park tickets sold at
shops on International Drive near Universal Studios or outside
Disney World and the city of Kissimmee, says Detective Mike Atwood
of the Orange County Sheriff's Office. Touts working for some shops
wait outside the parks when they close and buy multiday passes from
people who don't need them anymore. The shops then resell the
tickets, which may have a couple of days left on them, to tourists
at a reduced rate. The parks prohibit the reselling of passes, and
attendants will turn you away if you're caught trying to use one.
PHILADELPHIA Take your GPS device with you when you park in tourist
areas, such as around the Liberty Bell. Lieutenant Frank Vanore says
thefts of the gadgets from cars rose dramatically in the first four
months of 2008 compared to the same period last year. Don't leave
even a trace of a GPS unit in your car—such as a stray cord coming
out of the glove compartment or the imprint of a suction cup on the
windshield. "Take a couple of minutes and completely wipe down the
window," says Vanore.
WASHINGTON, D.C. Police launched a campaign this year to remind
people to lock their car doors at gas stations—thefts of items from
unattended cars at stations went up nearly fivefold from 2006 to
2007. There has also been a steep rise in robberies of iPods and
cell phones on the Metro, with criminals simply snatching the
devices out of the hands of distracted passengers. Police advise
riders to consider not using the white Apple earphones, because the
color is a dead giveaway for iPods. "The last thing you want to do
is make it easy for the bad guys," says Officer Josue Aldiva.
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