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


Flight Innovations You'll Love


It's all the rage to criticize the airlines. But we found some smart, practical initiatives that point the way to a better future.
 

Roll out driverless pods at airports
Someday, driverless pods may be zipping passengers between an airport and its parking lots. Fully automated, pods are more convenient than shuttle buses driven by humans. Currently, 18 pods are being tested at London Heathrow's Terminal 5. They let you board when you want to, rather than wait for a bus on a fixed schedule. Punch in your destination, such as a parking lot, on a touch screen. Then leave the driving to the machine, which glides on rails at speeds of 25 mph. A bonus perk: The pods are battery powered, so they don't spew out environmentally destructive exhaust.

Improve the design of coach seats
Hong Kong based Cathay Pacific Airways has reinvented the economy-class seat: As the seat reclines, the bottom slides forward, but the back stays in place. So the passenger sitting behind doesn't have to endure a seat hovering inches from his or her chin. The new seats are especially welcome on long-distance hauls—which happen to be routes Cathay Pacific flies regularly. American Airlines is among the other carriers reportedly interested in installing similar, slide-forward seats.

Try in-cabin mood lighting
Poor cabin lighting on a long flight may worsen jet lag. For instance, exposure to bright light at an hour when you are ordinarily asleep can confuse your body's internal clock. But smart cabin lighting may actually help your body adjust to a new time zone—and beat back jet lag. Virgin America has an in-cabin lighting system that subtly shifts through 12 shades of violet, including a welcoming, bright blue-purple during the day, a softer violet hue after dusk, and a deep, calming near-black on red-eyes when it's time to sleep. Elsewhere in the world, Air Canada, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and Thai Airways offer mood lighting on many long-haul flights.

Let passengers check bags before they get to the airport
Schlepping your bags isn't fun. It's also not necessary—at least not in the many capital cities where you can drop checked luggage at bus or train stations and forget about it until you land at your destination. Many passengers can check bags at London's Paddington station (for Heathrow flights), Vienna's Wien Mitte station, Moscow's Kievsky Station, and Hong Kong Station. In the U.S., the best advance luggage-check option is at Walt Disney World: Guests staying at Disney lodging can check bags at their hotel before hopping on the free Magical Express ride to the Orlando airport.

Ditch the paper boarding pass (once and for all)
Boarding passes printed on flimsy paper seem almost as outdated as paper airline tickets. Now, cell phone check-in is allowed at many airports, such as Chicago O'Hare and Los Angeles's LAX. Punch in your phone number at check-in and a bar code appears on your phone via e-mail or text message. Security officers and gate agents scan your phone's screen, making for an entirely paperless process. Some airlines, including American, Continental, and Delta (plus its sister unit, Northwest), plan to adopt the new technology at every airport gate nationwide.

Give more powersocketsto the people
Sometimes it's the simple things that count. Virgin America not only became the first airline to offer Wi-Fi on every flight, but it did so in an especially sensible way, with standard sockets (no adapter necessary) at every seat on the plane. Because while Wi-Fi is nice (even when there's a fee for it), it's even nicer to know that you won't run out of juice in the middle of a flight. Sockets obviously work with portable DVD players and cell phone chargers, too.

Replace outmoded radar-tracking systems
Radar is outdated. Locating a plane's position can take up to half a minute, a long time when planes are traveling at speeds over 500 mph. To play it safe and avoid accidents, planes fly extremely far apart from each other. They also fly routes that zigzag rather than go straight. The reason? Aircraft need to remain within signal range of radar beacons, which are irregularly spaced around the country. To shave flight times—and improve safety—the FAA is rolling out NextGen, a GPS-based air traffic control system that provides real-time plane locations to pilots and air traffic controllers. Using GPS technology (already in trial use by Alaska Airlines), planes will be able to fly straighter, more efficient routes while maintaining a safe distance from other aircraft. But we may have to wait until 2025 to see this technology adopted nationwide. Sigh.

Make upgrades easier
With most airlines, upgrading is an esoteric process that may involve loyalty program points, elite status, or just dumb luck. But when you check in at the airport for a Spirit Airlines flight, the kiosk presents a simpler formula. The screen may inform you that one of Spirit's Big Front Seats (the carrier's version of business class) is available for as little as $35 extra. The roomy seats are often dispensed on a first-come, first-served basis close to departure time. Depending on how you're feeling that day, you may very well decide that an upgrade to a more comfortable seat is money well spent.


 
        
Temporary Tattoos Keep Kids Safe

Colorful temporary SafetyTats with an emergency phone number are perfect for summer travel or outings to places where a kid can easily get lost in the crowd.

   
True or False: Recirculated Air in Planes Causes Infections


Does the air on planes increase the risk of catching a virus? I travel often on business. What can I do protect myself?

 

It's a common assumption that because an aircraft cabin is an enclosed space with recirculated air, healthy passengers will be exposed to cold viruses or other infectious agents expelled by sneezes or coughs from sick passengers. But research suggests the air on a plane is generally not a cause for worry. More important is who sits near you.

Most commercial flights use recirculated air as opposed to fresh air from outside the plane. Fresh air may sound cleaner, but at least 50% of recirculated air travels through high-efficiency filters that eliminate 97-99% of the bacteria, fungi, and dust. Also, most aircraft circulate air side-to-side in sections of the plane, rather than through the length of the cabin, limiting exposure to airborne particles.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, on flights from San Francisco to Denver, passengers in airplanes with recirculated air reported no more colds than passengers in planes using fresh air. However, your proximity to someone with a cold or flu does seem to matter.

Another article published in The Lancet concluded that the risk of becoming newly infected onboard an airplane is most closely associated with sitting within two rows of an already-infected person during a flight of eight hours or more. The overall risk is similar to the risk in other confined spaces, such as a bus, train, or classroom. Just as in those circumstances, on an airplane you may not always be able to avoid being close to someone who is coughing and sneezing. But good hygiene can help prevent infections. Wash your hands before eating and try not to touch your nose, eyes, or mouth during the flight.
   
How to Survive 10 Travel Emergencies


Crashed your rental car? Missed a flight? Lost a passport? Don't panic: When the you-know-what hits the fan, we have the strategies to salvage your vacation.
 

What Should I Do When...

...I MISS MY FLIGHT?
Get to the airport right away and ask to be put on the next flight. If an agent gives you grief, explain why you missed the flight—particularly, why it wasn't your fault (snarled traffic, for instance). Airlines are more likely to ask for additional payment if an agent thinks you missed the flight simply because you wanted to change your ticket without paying a change fee. With a little luck (and a sympathetic agent), you'll be on a flight later that day at no extra charge.
Worst case: Paying the difference between your new ticket and the original fare, plus a ticket-changing fee of about $150 for domestic flights.
When all else fails: Realize that no matter what the official policy is, agents can cut you some slack. Mentioning that you belong to the airline's frequent-flier program can't hurt. May we also suggest crying as a tactic?

...THE AIRLINE LOSES MY LUGGAGE?
Take the obvious first step and contact the airport's lost-and-found. File a bag-claim form and ask about the airline's policy for reimbursing you for toiletries and other essentials. Most bags are recovered and will be shipped to you (at home, a hotel, wherever—and at the airline's expense), so stay polite.
Worst case: About 2 percent of delayed luggage disappears forever. If your bag vanishes for good, file a form that itemizes what was inside it. Most airlines won't pay for precious items, including cash, artwork, electronics, and jewelry. So don't pack them in luggage. For covered items, you'll be paid for the depreciated value, not what it would cost to buy brand-new gear (including the bag itself). Sometimes you'll even have to produce receipts. On domestic flights, a carrier's liability maxes out at $3,300 per passenger. Weirdly, liability on most international flights is even less—about $1,700 per passenger.
When all else fails: Instead of looking for receipts for items purchased years ago, bring in printouts of the current value of comparable items for sale as "used" on Amazon. Overall, the moral is: Never pack anything of value in your checked luggage.

...I CRASH MY RENTAL CAR?
After the accident (here or abroad), insist on calling the police (even if it's a minor fender bender), and make copies of the report. If you declined collision damage waiver insurance coverage, your auto-insurance policy should cover damages. If you declined rental coverage and don't have auto insurance, the credit card you used to pay for the rental should pay for damage to the vehicle.
Worst case: You didn't check for loopholes in your policy's fine print, and now you're stuck with a huge bill. Coverage provided by your credit card or auto insurer often doesn't apply to vans and luxury vehicles. Rentals in some countries, such as Ireland and Jamaica, may not be covered either. That's why you need to call your credit card company and check the fine print before you depart.
When all else fails: Never agree to pay anything to the rental company on the spot. If you've looked into all the other options and it looks like you're on the hook for thousands of dollars, call a lawyer.

...MY TOUR OPERATOR GOES OUT OF BUSINESS?
Hopefully, you paid with a credit card, which you should always do because it offers the most protection. If so, call your card company and explain what happened. Your money can be refunded if you contest the charges within 60 or 90 days of when your statement is mailed to you.
Worst case: You paid with a check and didn't buy travel insurance that specifically covers the financial default of a tour operator. In which case, you're not getting your money back.
When all else fails: Contact the United States Tour Operators Association (ustoa.com) to see if the tour operator was a member of their group—and as such, would have been required to keep $1 million in reserves to refund to customers.

...MY PASSPORT IS STOLEN—AND I'M THE VICTIM OF A CRIME?
For most crimes except minor pickpocketing, call the police. If you've been hurt or robbed, or your travel plans must be changed, the police report will help you file claims with health and travel insurers. Cancel any stolen debit and credit cards, too.
Worst case: Your passport was stolen, and without it you won't be allowed back into the country. Contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate ASAP. With luck, you normally either travel with a photocopy of your passport, which will help speed up the process of getting a new one, or you've e-mailed a scan of your passport to yourself at a Web-based account you can access.
When all else fails: Bust out your emergency stash of traveler's checks, which you brought along for just such an occasion—and which should hold you over until you get your hands on new cards and a new passport.

...MY CHECKED LUGGAGE IS ROBBED?
You'll probably never get your stuff back, but you should file reports anyway. Why? They increase the chances that the thieves will eventually be caught. If there's a slip in your bag stating that the TSA inspected it, file a claim at the TSA website (www.tsa.gov).
Worst case: There's no slip of paper from the TSA noting that your bag has been inspected. So file a claim for reimbursement for lost and stolen items with the airline directly—and quickly, because claims often must be submitted within as little as 24 hours of an incident. Ironically, airlines won't pay for the most-likely-to-be-stolen items, such as jewelry and electronics, and they impose caps on their total liability per passenger.
When all else fails: File claims with the airline, the airport(s), and the TSA. To be safer next time, put a TSA-recognized lock on your bag to prevent the half dozen, non-TSA workers who handle it from being able to pry it open.

...I GET SICK WITH A BUNCH OF OTHER PASSENGERS ON A CRUISE?
If your cruise is interrupted or postponed because of an outbreak, you should expect to be given the option to cancel for a full refund or to reschedule at a discount of up to half off.
Worst case: Cruise ships are not required to compensate passengers for illnesses. If you and a small number of passengers get sick on an otherwise uneventful sailing, don't expect a refund.
When all else fails: Call the cruise line's customer-service department and request a discount on a future sailing, explaining that your vacation was ruined and that you'd like to give the experience another shot at a discounted rate, or with credit for on board purchases.

...I NEED EMERGENCY MEDICAL HELP AT MY DESTINATION?
Most U.S.-based health-insurance plans offer some coverage overseas, but only for emergencies, such as broken bones or heart attacks—anything that would send a reasonable person to the ER. Chances are you'll have to pay the hospital or doctor directly and get reimbursed later, so keep all receipts. In some rare cases, health plans work with doctors and clinics overseas, and if your treatment occurs in-network, your insurer may be able to pay the bill directly, saving you the trouble of paying out of pocket.
Worst case: You have no insurance and rely on Medicare or Medicaid. Neither program will protect you outside the U.S. Be sure to buy supplementary travel insurance in advance of your trip. Ask your travel agent for advice on travel insurance.
When all else fails: Get to a doctor or hospital and worry about payment later. In many parts of the world, medical treatments cost far less than in the U.S. And in countries with socialized health plans, medical bills have a way of disappearing, even for foreigners.

...I'VE BEEN ARRESTED OVERSEAS?
Drugs are involved in roughly one-third of the arrests of Americans abroad, so it goes without saying to just say no. Legal systems vary widely around the globe, however, and to avoid getting in trouble because of an unusual foreign law—in Singapore, for instance, you can be fined for not flushing the toilet—study up on your destination's peculiar regulations in guidebooks and at travel.state.gov.
Worst case: You're facing serious jail time, or worse. When speaking to the police, be respectful and apologetic without necessarily admitting wrongdoing.
When all else fails: Tell everyone who will listen that you demand to speak with a U.S. embassy officer, who can help you navigate that country's legal system, find a local attorney, and send messages to your family.

...I'M CAUGHT IN A NATURAL OR MAN-MADE DISASTER? Serious emergencies can happen anywhere (see: London, Haiti, Chile, Mumbai, New Orleans), so it's a good idea to e-mail your itinerary, including flight and hotel info, to a friend back home. Register your trip with the State Department for free at travel.state.gov, so that the government will know where you are and will be able to help get you to safety in a crisis.
Worst case: If you're fortunate enough to have life and limb intact, money shouldn't be a concern: When true emergencies occur, hotels and airlines are generally very sympathetic to travelers and waive cancellation and change restrictions.
When all else fails: Figure out a way to get yourself to a U.S. embassy or consulate, which can provide safety and coordinate evacuations. Getting home may take time, so be patient, and try to console the travelers around you, who may become your new best friends.


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


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