Welcome to the "The Smart Traveler". Your May 2006 newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.


Shave a few bucks off summer travel costs

 The cost of travel has been going up all year and that is making it difficult -- but not impossible -- to find vacation bargains.

The U.S. travel industry is enjoying greater pricing power in large part because it has succeeded in minimizing the supply of airline seats, hotel rooms and rental cars at a time when demand for these services is rising. Fliers are also paying more as airlines pass along their soaring jet-fuel expenses.
 

With the start of summer, just around the corner, the sweetest deals may already have been snapped up, though it is still possible to save a few bucks by planning ahead and remaining flexible when it comes to itinerary details.

 

For example:

 

  We employ wholesale travel companies that have bulk contracts with the different airlines, hotels, resorts, and car rental companies. That means that because of the high volume that they do with each of these companies, they get a price that is much lower than if we went direct and put everything together separately. Same hotels, cars, seats on the airplane; lower price!

 

  Families that can get time off together in June and September will generally find travel to be more affordable, and less crowded, than those taking trips in July and August.

  When visiting coastal towns, consider staying at a hotel that is, say, a one-mile drive -- or better yet, walk -- from the beach, instead of splurging for the ocean view.

  Begin and end 7-day trips midweek instead of on weekends, when airports are busier and ticket prices tend to be higher.

When it comes to rental car rates, consumers have some decent leverage, experts said. Unlike airlines and hotels, many car rental agencies do not charge cancellation fees, so there is no risk in booking early and then, just before the trip, checking to see if the rates have dropped.

These tricks of the trade may be more useful than ever before given that travel costs have climbed across the board:

  Airline ticket prices are on the rise as demand from business and leisure travelers increases at the same time carriers are reducing their domestic carrying capacity to keep costs down -- a strategy that has also resulted in jam-packed planes. The soaring price of jet fuel has also prompted major carriers to raise fares five times this year. Compared with last year, the average price of the cheapest domestic leisure fares is 4 percent higher than a year ago, according to Harrell Associates, a New York-based consulting firm.

  Hotel rates are climbing for similar reasons. With very few new hotels built in 2005, the existing properties are filling up quickly and from a pricing standpoint "the hotels are back in the driver's seat," said Jan Freitag, a vice president at Smith Travel Research, a Tennessee-based lodging consultant. Room rates are up between 6 and 9 percent from a year ago, with the biggest increases occurring in the luxury market.

  The cost of renting a mid-sized vehicle one week in advance in the U.S. could rise to about $55 during the peak of the summer, according to Neil Abrams, a New York-based consultant. Last year, that figure was closer to $50. With the nation's rental car fleet growing at a "very conservative" rate, Abrams said the industry has been "able to squeeze more from less."

  And for those hitting the road in their own cars, the fuel burden will be hefty. According to the Energy Department, the price of gasoline is expected to average $2.71 a gallon this summer, an increase of 14 percent from last year.


Fliers could keep their shoes on if new airport scanner is approved

A government lab is testing a "very promising" new machine that would allow airline passengers to keep their shoes on while going through security checkpoints, the nation's aviation security chief said Thursday.

The machine, which detects explosive material on shoes when people stand on a platform, is getting a "highly expedited" review at the lab, said Kip Hawley, head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

"We are looking at this with great interest," Hawley said. "Anything that speeds up explosive detection through the checkpoint, we want to encourage."

He wouldn't give a timetable for deploying the machines. They must pass testing in an airport before they are used to screen passengers.

The ShoeScanner uses technology similar to a medical MRI to detect explosives in 5 to 8 seconds. It shoots radio waves at shoes to agitate molecules and analyze their structure.

Readings are sent to a computer that holds a library of explosives characteristics and makes a rapid comparison.

Removing shoes at checkpoints has been one of the biggest inconveniences for passengers in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Passengers have been urged to remove thick-soled shoes at checkpoints since Richard Reid tried to blow up a Paris-to-Miami plane in late 2001 using plastic explosive hidden in his sneakers.

"The question is: Can you operate and deploy (the machine) and have people walk on it without it breaking down?" Hawley said. "It's sensitive electronic equipment."

The TSA has been searching for technology that detects explosives better than the X-ray machines and metal detectors now used at checkpoints.

The ShoeScanner is being developed by GE Security, a General Electric subsidiary that makes the "puffer" portals deployed at dozens of U.S. airports that blow air jets at passengers to detect explosives residue.

The government's Transportation Security Lab in New Jersey also is testing GE's Itemiser, which detects explosives on passengers when they press a finger on an electronic reader.

The ShoeScanner and Itemiser would first be used only in checkpoint lanes reserved for travelers who pass a background check and pay an annual fee to get faster security under a Registered Traveler program starting in June. Airports and private companies will run the voluntary program. The TSA wants them to pay for new detection machines that may let participants keep their shoes or coats on through checkpoints.

Those machines could ultimately be used for ordinary travelers. "That could be the big payoff for the Registered Traveler program," Hawley said.

GE Security is a minority owner of Verified Identity Pass, a Manhattan company with contracts to run Registered Traveler in Orlando, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and San Jose airports.

"Registered Travelers would be far more secure than anybody going through the regular (security) lanes," Verified Identity CEO Steven Brill said. The ShoeScanner "is a better way to test shoes than putting them through an X-ray."


How To Avoid The Dreaded Middle Seat

 
(And how to cope if you get stuck with one)

I
t's happened to everyone -- even the most savvy business traveler and frequent flier.. A last-minute trip, no seat assignment on the airplane and the only seat left on a packed flight? You guessed it-- the dreaded middle seat. Even worse is the dreaded middle seat in the very last row. You know, the one by the bathroom that doesn't recline. You spend the entire flight sitting upright and cramped, with a line of people cluttering the aisle waiting to use the bathroom. It can make your trip miserable.

Here are some strategies to help you avoid the worst seat in the house.

How to Avoid the Middle Seat

- Check the airline seating chart before making a reservation.

- Book as early as possible - within three weeks of the flight . The early bird catches the worm and the early booker can snag the best seat. If you book months ahead, however, you will be too early for an assignment and have to take your chances with "gate check-in".

- No seat assignment available when you make your reservations? Try calling just after midnight. That's when expired reservations clear and seats open up.

- If you use a travel agent, make sure they have a record of your seating preferences - aisle or window. Be sure to stress you want to sit as close to the front as possible for a quicker departure.

- Be sure to take advantage of your elite status in your frequent flier program. If the flight is not full, most airlines will keep the seat next to you empty if you are a top-tier member. It is one of the best perks around.

- Re-Confirm your flight and seat assignment with the airline 72 hours prior to departure in case of schedule changes.

- When you receive your ticket and boarding pass or e-ticket confirmation make sure there's a seat assignment. Mistakes happen. If you have time -- cross reference with the airline seating chart. Remember, if someone else makes the mistake, you will pay for it with an uncomfortable flight.

- If you are unable to confirm a seat. be sure to get to the airport early -- at least 1 1/2 hours for domestic U.S. flights! Bulkhead and exit rows seats are kept on hold and you may be able to benefit from the extra legroom.

Remember though, bulkhead seats often come with babies as your next-door neighbor and there's less storage because there is no seat in front of you. Another factor to consider about exit rows is that some exit rows on certain planes do not recline.

- If you do have an assignment for your preferred seat -- don't check-in too late. One frequent flier we know sacrificed an aisle seat in front for a back row middle seat just because she dawdled and checked-in just 10 minutes before departure. Those few minutes reading magazines in the newstand translated into hours of discomfort in the air. It was a painful lesson.

- Finally, the gate check-in attendant can be your best friend. Ask politely if there is a better seat available, volunteer to wait patiently and look slightly pathetic. Remind them gently of your elite frequent flier status.

How to Cope if You're Stuck in the Middle

In spite of your best efforts you might end up with the middle seat, here are some tips to cope.

- If you are late boarding and have your choice of middle seats go for the one up front. Check out the aisle and window passengers. Do they look like they will be self-contained and give you plenty of room? Observe their body language and trust your instincts.

- Don't fight it. Accept that your destiny for the next few hours is to be the sardine in a sardine sandwich.

- Take a deep breath and make your space as comfortable as possible. This is a good time to practice meditation and stress management skills.

- Capture as much personal space a you can right away. Dominate the two armrests. This will force your seat-mates to give you a wider berth. Be polite, but stake out your territory. After all, they have "personal space" on either side.

- With the consent of your neighbors, you might want to raise the armrests to give everyone more hip room.

- Try to store as much of your personal gear in the overhead bin. You want as much legroom as possible under the seat in front of you. However, be sure to store heavy items, such a laptops, under the seat in front of you. Consider forgoing working on the laptop during the flight. A cramped space becomes even more claustrophobic when you bring out the hardware. And, whatever you do, don't try to read a newspaper. Stick to small paperbacks. Although it is important to keep hydrated in the air -- don't guzzle water by the gallon.. Crawling over seat-mates repeatedly to get to the bathroom can be annoying.

- Get up once during the flight to stretch. Even if you don't have to use the restroom. This time away will allow your companions to move around as well and refresh the whole row.

Just remember -- upon your return recapture those armrests again!


 Avoiding Scams When Planning Your Trip Part 3

Part 1 & 2


When planning a trip, here are some additional tips:

  • Beware of unsolicited travel opportunities.
  • There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. If a travel opportunity sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Either they will take your money and run, or there are hidden charges. For example, many so-called "free vacations" or "vacation giveaways" require you to stay at a specific hotel-at exorbitant rates.
  • Beware of extremely low-priced offers, unsolicited offers involving Florida or Hawaii, and opportunities that try to pressure you into buying on the spot.
  • If you're elderly, be especially careful. Scam artists will try to confuse and manipulate you.
  • Ask detailed questions (e.g., what is covered by the price and what isn't, whether there are any additional charges, the names of the hotels, airlines, airports, and restaurants, exact dates and times, cancellation policies, and refund policies), and get it all in writing before you buy anything.
  • Never give personal information, including credit card numbers, social security numbers, bank account numbers, or similar information to an unsolicited telephone salesperson. If you must, ask for a telephone number and call them back the next day, after you've had time to check them out. Call the Better Business Bureau and use the telephone number to verify if they're a legitimate business, and if so, whether there have been any complaints. You can also checkout the company with the state attorney general's office and the local consumer protection agency.
  • Pay for purchases with a credit card, never with a check or money order. When you pay for purchases with a credit card, you're protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act against fraudulent charges.
  • Never give out your frequent flyer number over the phone, unless you initiated the call.
  • Don't assume that just because a company places advertisements in a newspaper or has a toll-free 800 number, it must be safe. It takes time for a company to generate enough complaints for the Federal Trade Commission to start an investigation. Moreover, not all 800 numbers are toll-free these days, and it's possible for an individual to get their own toll-free number.
  • Do not give your tickets to anyone other than an agent of the airline at the ticketing/check-in counter, the gate, or the airline's offices. A common scam is for someone wearing a uniform similar to that of the airline to provide some excuse for taking your tickets (e.g., claiming there is a problem with the tickets). If you're not sure that someone is an airline employee, check their ID with the airline.
  • If you've encountered a problem, or are suspicious of an offer, call the National Fraud Information Center, a hotline operated by the National Consumers League. The number is 800-876-7060 and can be reached from 9a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT during the week. You can also call the local Better Business Bureau, the state Bureau of Consumer Protection, and the Attorney General's office.

A good booklet to read is Telemarketing Travel Fraud, a free publication of the Federal Trade Commission. Call 202-326-2222 for a copy, or write to: Federal Trade Commission, Public Reference Branch, Room 130, Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington DC 20580.

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