Welcome to the March 2010 issue of "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.
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
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
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 power—sockets—to 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.
Tattoos Keep Kids Safe
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.
What they are: They're colorful temporary tattoos for children on which a
parent or caretaker can write a cell phone or emergency phone number, perfect
for summer travel or outings to amusement parks, zoos, museums or beaches, where
a kid can easily get lost in the crowd. And the tats come in boys and girls
The good: The SafetyTats are much like adhesive bandages. They're made
with a proprietary material that, like a bandage, is peeled and sticks to the
skin (after you clean the area with a wipe that is provided). Then you use the
pen that comes with the kit to write the phone number. The tats are
hypoallergenic and latex-free. SafetyTat says the tats can last up to two weeks.
We tested one for a week on the shoulder of an adult, and it held up through a
variety of activities and half a dozen soapy showers without even a hint of
working its way loose.
The bad: Peeling it off was painless, even for an adult with a hairy
shoulder. But a small child might be a little more sensitive to the removal.
Also, each SafetyTat is a one-time-only deal, so if you or your child pulls it
off, you will have to apply another one. And the company warns not to apply the
tats to sensitive areas or near the eyes. So plastering one across little
Johnny's forehead is not recommended.
Cost: Starts at $9.99 for six tattoos or $19.95 for an 18-pack
Available from: SafetyTat.com
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. How to Survive 10
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
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.
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
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
...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
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,
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
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
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
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