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

10 Questions to Ask Before You Book a Cruise

Everything you need to know before you hit the high seas.



1. Are there discounts for groups?
Bottom line: Groups do have purchasing power. The standard discount is one free cruise fare for every 10 to 15 travelers, but sometimes cruise lines are willing to throw in perks such as a complimentary cocktail party or onboard credit.

2. Does the ship have traditional cruise dining, in which the passengers are told when, where, and with whom they'll be eating?
If so, request your time slot when you book your cruise and specify that your group must dine together.

3. Are there specialty restaurants?
If you would like to have a nice meal together one night, make a reservation as early as possible. Alternative restaurants are growing in popularity and tend to fill up quickly. Also: Find out in advance if a surcharge will be applied to the meal.

4. Do we need to worry about a dress code?
Some cruise lines have a relaxed dress code during the day, some call for "country-club casual" throughout the cruise, and others have formal nights, when proper attire can range from fun cocktail dresses to full-length formal gowns.

5. What types of official ID should we bring?
In addition to your passport, some destinations require visas. Find out what you'll need early, so you have time to apply for the proper documentation.

6. What organized tours does the cruise line offer at each port?
Ships give passengers a range of onshore tour options, from leisurely bus tours to thrilling zip-line excursions. If your group wants to go on any of these, book early while there's still space for all of you. You can also book tours independently or explore on your own. Either of those options is usually cheaper, but know that getting back to the ship on time is your responsibility. The captain will almost always wait if you're on one of the tours the cruise line has arranged, but not necessarily if you're on your own.

7. Does the cruise line offer special rates for pre- and post-cruise hotel stays? Do these deals include transfers to and from the ship?
Always find out the hotel's rates on your own to make sure you're actually getting a deal. Also, some hotels will let you park your car in their lots for the duration of the cruise, saving you the fees for parking at the port.

8. Can we book transportation to and from the departure port through the cruise line?
Some cruise lines offer package fares that include airline tickets. Lines also have air/sea departments that will offer to book your tickets for you. The service is convenient, but the price isn't always the best; compare what it would cost if you bought the tickets on your own.

9. What's the policy on deposits and refunds?
Policies depend on the cruise line and the trip length. A seven-night cruise usually requires a deposit of about $250; the full amount is usually due 70 to 90 days before departure. Refund rules vary, too, but most lines allow you to cancel with no penalty up to the time when your final payment is due.

10. What's a fuel surcharge, and how much will I pay?
In response to the rising cost of fuel, cruise lines now tack on a fuel surcharge. It's usually per person, up to a certain number of people per cabin, and per day (with a maximum amount). You pay it on top of your cruise fare—and the cruise lines do reserve the right to increase it at any time.

World's largest airline adds $15 first-bag fee

Delta Air Lines Inc., the world's biggest airline, will impose a $15 fee to check a first bag, becoming the last of the six legacy airlines to impose such a fee. The airline also said it is cutting certain other fees as it aligns its policies with those of Northwest Airlines, which it acquired last week.

Atlanta-based Delta said that effective immediately, for traffic on or after Dec. 5, customers flying within the U.S. will be charged $15 for the first checked bag and $25 for the second checked bag when traveling domestically, consistent with Northwest's existing policies.

Customers who purchased Delta tickets on or before Wednesday, and who are traveling on or after Dec. 5, will be charged $50 for a second bag, but will be permitted to check their first bag without charge based on Delta's previous policy. Customers flying in first or business class, including SkyMiles Medallion members and WorldPerks Elite members, will be able to check up to three bags, up to 70 pounds each, for free.

Delta also said it is eliminating SkyMiles and WorldPerks award ticket surcharges, reducing reservation sales direct ticketing charges and eliminating curbside check-in administrative fees. Effective immediately, Delta will eliminate the $25 to $100 fuel surcharges assessed for SkyMiles and WorldPerks award ticket travel originating from the U.S. and Canada.

The surcharges were instituted earlier this year by both airlines due to high fuel prices, which have declined significantly since their record level in July.
As of Thursday, Delta will reduce the fee assessed for tickets purchased over the phone from a reservations sales representative from $25 to $20, consistent with Northwest's policy. Delta will also reduce the fee collected when customers redeem either SkyMiles or WorldPerks award travel over the phone with a reservations sales representative from $25 to $20. There is no charge for customers who book tickets and redeem award travel online at Delta's Web site or Northwest's Web site.

As for curbside check-in, Delta said that, effective Dec. 5, it will drop the $3 fee it has been charging.
Cell Phones Replacing Boarding Passes

A stress-free airport experience is becoming less of a wishful fantasy and more of a reality thanks to paperless check-in with many smart-phones and PDAs.

It started first with Continental Airlines. But now, others like British Airways, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, Alaska Airlines, and Air Canada are slowly rolling out a way for customers to check-in for a flight, via Web-enabled devices like iPhones and Blackberries.

How to do it is all relatively similar between airlines, but not uniform. Delta allows the boarding pass to be scanned directly from your mobile device. Register your cell phone number to receive a text message with a boarding pass bar code. Then hold up the screen of your cell phone under the airport security scanner, rather than show a paper boarding pass. (As always, you have to present a government-issued photo I.D. too.) Delta is testing the service at LaGuardia Airport.

Similarly, passengers on American airlines on nonstop domestic flights from Chicago O'Hare, LAX, and Orange County John Wayne Airport can now check-in at AA.com and choose to receive an electronic boarding pass via e-mail, in the form of a two-dimensional bar code. (For details and photos, visit aa.com/mobileboarding.)

In contrast, British Airways offers to fax the boarding pass, send it directly to an airport kiosk or check-in desk, or send it in an e-mail to be printed later.

How to Deal with Getting Bumped

It's not unusual for flights to be overbooked. We offers the following advice to help you avoid being involuntarily bumped from a full flight:

       Get a seat assignment when you book the flight. Arrive early and confirm your seat.

       Get priority treatment by joining the airline's elite member club or frequent flyer program.

       Avoid the last flight of the day, when fewer people will volunteer to get bumped. Also, the earlier you fly in the day, the more options you'll have for completing your trip if you do get bumped.

       If you are being involuntarily bumped, make sure the airline has first asked for volunteers who might be happy to skip the flight in exchange for compensation.

Those who volunteer to be bumped are typically compensated with a free flight or travel voucher in addition to being rebooked. For travelers with flexible schedules, this may be a good deal. If you want to volunteer, call the airline the evening before to ask if the flight is overbooked. If it is, arrive 75 minutes before departure and volunteer to be bumped. But ask questions before you accept any deals.

If your rebooked flight for the original route is hours away or the next day, will the airline pay for your meals while you wait or a hotel? If you've already checked your luggage, what will happen to it? As for your compensation, are you getting a free ticket or a money-off voucher? Does the ticket or voucher expire? Does it have blackout dates?

Involuntarily bumped passengers are not entitled to compensation if the airline can arrange alternative transportation that is scheduled to get them to their destination within an hour of the original arrival time. And if your flight was canceled due to weather or mechanical difficulties, or because the airline had to use a smaller plane than originally planned, the airline is not required to compensate you.

But you are entitled to compensation under certain circumstances if you're involuntarily bumped due to overbooking.

If your substitute transportation gets to your destination between one and two hours after the original arrival time (or between one and four hours on international flights), the airline is required to pay you an amount equal to your one-way fare, up to $200. If the substitute flight gets you there two hours after your original arrival time (four hours international), compensation is equal to twice your paid fare, up to $400.

These rules only apply to flights departing from U.S. airports for either domestic or international destinations. They do not cover inbound international flights to the U.S. or other international routes.

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

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