Welcome to the June 2008 issue of "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.


Tips For The First Time Cruiser

Have you 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.



Embarkation

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 airport.

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 searched.

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 cabin.

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 are indefensible.

“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 playing field.

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 car firm.

*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.

  
United Airlines To Require Minimum Stays

No. 2 U.S. carrier also raising cheapest fares by as much as $90 one-way

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 year.

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 Which Tricks Criminals Are Using To Prey On Unsuspecting Tourists

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 taxi.state.nv.us.

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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