Welcome to the November 2009 issue of "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.
As if traveling with the kids over the holidays weren't tough enough, this year we must contend with airline surcharges and swine flu, as well as all the usual annoyances and delays that go along with traveling -- especially with children -- during the busiest travel weeks of the year.
There is some good news, though, domestic airfare is down 12 percent from last Thanksgiving -- hotel rates are down even more.
--Juggle your dates. Travel the Monday before Thanksgiving or Thanksgiving morning, the week of Christmas rather than the following week and you could save more than $100 a ticket. Those airline surcharges we are hearing so much about are only for the busiest travel days, like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and Sunday, November 29.
--You might want to consider airlines that give "fare drop" discounts like Jet Blue, Southwest and Alaska; they refund the difference if a fare goes down between the time you buy and the time you fly. Other airlines also offer refunds but deduct hefty change fees.
--Book a direct flight, even if you have to pay more. And if you have to connect, allow at least three hours between flights. The planes will be packed and if you miss your connection -- all it takes is one major storm somewhere -- you won't find enough seats on the next flights for your family. Make sure you get seat assignments too. It will be impossible to get seats together when you arrive at the airport for a packed flight.
--Look for "family designated" security lanes at airports to avoid the icy glares of harried business travelers behind you and your stroller. Allow at least an hour more than you think you'll need and check in online.
--Travel with carry-on bags not only to save fees (Jet Blue and Southwest currently are the only domestic carriers not charging baggage fees), but also to save time. You'll get to the gate -- and out of the airport at the other end -- significantly quicker. As an early holiday gift, get the kids their own rolling carry-on, monogrammed with their name in a favorite color, from Lands' End or L.L. Bean. (Listening, Grandma?)
--If necessary, ship suitcases, snow sports gear and holiday gifts ahead. If you are staying with relatives, rent a crib (it isn't safe to use the one your mom has had in the attic for 30 years). Google a rental place near where you'll be staying or check out www.rent-baby-equipment.com or http://www.jetsetbabies.com/. They can deliver diapers!)
--Buy a seat for the baby and toddler and bring their safety seats onboard. Yes, they can fly free until they are two, but everyone from the FAA to the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that young children are far safer -- not to mention more comfortable -- in a safety seat, especially when a flight hits turbulence. You'll have a more comfortable flight too.
--Stash sandwiches, snacks and reusable water bottles that you can fill when you get through security. This way you not only feed the kids healthier en route but also save considerable money and time. You don't want to have to run for the gate after being stuck in an interminable security line with no time to stop for food, while facing a three-hour flight with three kids, with only crushed Goldfish in your carry-on.
--Keep that hand sanitizer handy and use it often. "Parents should not be afraid to travel due to H1N1," says Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, a pediatrician and editor of www.pediatricsnow.com. We've just got to travel smarter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an excellent guide for parents (www.flu.gov) and you'll also find tips at the American Academy of Pediatrics' Website, www.aap.org.
"Cough into a tissue or the crook of your elbow," Dr. O'Keeffe says. And stay home if you are sick. Don't go visit relatives who are sick either. Don't share drinks or food, adds Dr. Chris Tolcher, a California pediatrician, medical school professor and spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
--Just in case someone gets sick, bring along common over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, Dr. Tolcher suggests. Ask your pediatrician to recommend a physician in the area you'll be visiting, particularly if any of your kids has a chronic condition. And consider travel insurance. According to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, you'll be covered if one of you gets sick away from home or if you have to cancel for H1N1 or other illnesses, as long as you have medical documentation.
--Make sure kids who are flying as unaccompanied minors know where they are going. (Yes, kids have been put on wrong flights.) Give them a cell phone and all of the phone numbers they might need. Teens need to know that if their flight is diverted or if they miss a connection, they've got to speak up and tell the gate agents and flight attendants they are alone. You don't want them to get lost in the shuffle.
--There is one other bright spot. A new American Express survey reports that nearly 20 percent of those who traveled last year will be staying home. Maybe that will make it easier for the rest of us. And perhaps the airlines will offer a last-minute sale.
Pass the turkey.
Airport delays can certainly dampen the festive mood. By searching out some airport data, you can play the numbers to decrease your chances of delays and cancellations.
There is no way to completely avoid airport delays. No one could have predicted Friday’s mess due to an FAA computer glitch, for instance. But you can increase your chances for smooth, speedy travel by avoiding connections at airports that are historically likely to experience big delays.
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics allows you to glance over the percentages of flights that have been delayed, cancelled, or on-time at every U.S. airport over the past ten years. What's more, because the winter holidays are sort of all-bets-off times to travel, when airports see more traffic and delays may be more likely, the BTS's holiday-specific airport data is especially helpful.
You can use the BTS's Winter Holiday Flight Delays filter to find out which hubs had the best (and worst) on-time percentages over the last three years, and not just at any time of year but specifically during the period just before Christmas lasting until just after New Year's. You can also filter the BTS's data by other holidays, including Thanksgiving and Easter, to give you a sense of your chances for a delay-free travel experience.
Is the data perfect? Does it guarantee you won't be delayed? No, and no. But it does give you some background that'll help you make a smart bet.
One particularly interesting set of data involves cancellations during the winter holidays. Like you'd imagine, by and large airports in northerly snowy climates are far more likely to have cancellations than airports in the South. Over the past three years worth of winter holidays, Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and New Orleans have each had to cancel around 1 percent of flights, whereas the overall nationwide average is a bit over 3 percent, and Chicago O'Hare and Denver have cancelled about 7 percent of flights.
adequate time between flights. One hour is generally the minimum
necessary to allow for the possibility of a delayed arrival, to make
your way from one gate to the other, and to have your checked
luggage transferred between planes. Some airports require greater
margins even for domestic flights, and more if the journey involves
an international connection. Be wary of signing up for routings that
involve tighter connections.
This is even more important these days, when fuller planes make it harder for airlines to put passengers who miss their connections onto later flights. Airlines are not required to hold planes for incoming passengers on delayed flights, although they do so on occasion.
Consider the size of the airport when accepting minimal connection times. At big hubs, airlines do not necessarily assign arrival and departure gates based on the convenience of connecting passengers.
Check out your flight's on-time performance history. Some flights almost always arrive late, and airlines are required to provide statistics on late arrivals.
Understand the difference between "direct" and "nonstop." Flights listed as "direct" will make stops en route but will continue with the same flight number. During severe travel disruptions, even direct flights can have a portion of the route canceled.
Avoid flights during peak travel hours, and seek out those that depart early in the day. Flight delays tend to get worse as the day goes on. Flights that start the day at an airport are listed as "originators" and are less likely to be delayed since they don't depend on a plane to arrive from another location.
You lose your passport
To get a new passport, you need to go in person to a U.S. embassy or consulate. Visit travel.state.gov or call 202/ 501-4444 to find the location nearest you. Here's where that photocopy of your passport everyone recommended comes to the rescue. (Don't have one? Get a copy made now. No, really--now. And pack it separately from your passport.) The photocopy, along with a driver's license or other ID, should be acceptable proof. If you're scheduled to depart within 14 days, you can get an emergency passport on the spot, valid for up to a year. Standard passports valid for 10 years can also be issued abroad, but the process takes about two weeks. For someone in the U.S., getting a passport issued within 14 days costs $157. But somehow, if you're in another country, the cost is only $97 for either an emergency or a standard passport. Travelers without a passport photocopy or any ID will need to prove their citizenship, which will probably take a few days. And everyone applying for a passport abroad must visit an office during regular business hours. In the past, when an embassy was closed, an officer could write a "transportation letter" to try and get you on the plane. After 9/11, that no longer happens. Missing a flight is not a big enough emergency for exceptions to be made.
You're sick--really sick
Some health plans, such as Medicare, offer no coverage outside the U.S.; others will reimburse you for payments made out of pocket (Aetna is one); and still others may pay foreign hospitals directly if you arrange this in advance or upon admittance (Blue Cross/Blue Shield). Remember that 800 numbers often don't work overseas, so keep your insurer's local number handy. Depending on your plan, or lack thereof, consider travel insurance. Compare options at insuremytrip.com, and read the fine print carefully. If you have no coverage and are critically injured, the local U.S. embassy can arrange to send you home, at your expense. Read up on your destination's health-care system and health threats at travel.state.gov.
Your wallet is stolen
First, cancel your credit and debit cards. The maximum you'll have to pay for unauthorized charges is $50 per credit card, but you'd be wise to try and cancel before any purchases are made. Every credit card company has a 24-hour hotline that accepts collect calls. Cash advances and replacement cards won't be available immediately--one more reason why you shouldn't keep all your cash and valuables in the same place. Hiding a few $100 bills or traveler's checks in a separate bag, your shoe, or several different spots is a good idea. File a police report--if not in the hopes of recovering your wallet, then because it'll help with insurance claims and at airport check-ins. If you're traveling within the U.S. and have no photo ID, call and tell the airline about your predicament. Airline staff know that getting a duplicate license may take weeks, and can allow you onto a flight without photo ID. Show up ahead of time for additional screening, and bring a copy of the police report and any ID you still have.
Your luggage is damaged, or worse
File a report with the airline for damaged bags within 24 hours of arrival, or your claim could be dismissed. Airlines generally pay compensation for bags (and any damaged items inside) when luggage is torn or dented in transit, but can refuse to pay when there's no external damage. (Pack fragile items very carefully in checked bags, or better yet, keep them in your carry-on. Mailing some items might be smarter.) If luggage is destroyed or completely lost, you must list all the items inside to get reimbursed, as you would on an insurance form for a burglary. Airlines pay a maximum of $2,800 per passenger for lost luggage on domestic flights, though each carrier's policy is a little different (many exclude coverage of jewelry, camera equipment, and medications). In 98 percent of "lost" luggage situations, bags are eventually recovered. When delays occur, airlines may advance passengers cash or reimburse them for necessary items, such as toiletries and a change of clothes. (Ask how to proceed before leaving the airport; you'll need to fill out forms and perhaps keep receipts.) The airline will pay for shipping delayed bags to passengers, even if they're at a resort five hours from the airport. Always label your bags clearly.
The flight is canceled, or you're bumped
When a flight is canceled, the airline is responsible for getting passengers on its next departure with open seats. Waiting at the airport counter isn't the only option--calling the airline's 800 number is often a quicker way to rebook. Some carriers put stranded passengers onto competitors' flights, though they're not required to do so. They're also not required to provide snacks, bottled water, or lodging unless delays last a certain period of time (generally a minimum of four hours). Most airlines make efforts to ease the pain of waiting, but they do so on a case-by-case basis. As for overbooking, the Department of Transportation requires compensation for passengers who relinquish seats voluntarily. There's no federal standard for that compensation--you're only guaranteed something, usually a flight voucher. For passengers who are involuntarily bumped on domestic flights, the rules are as follows: If you're on another flight within an hour, you get nothing; within two hours, the airline pays you the equivalent of your one-way fare ($200 max); more than two hours later, you get 200 percent reimbursement ($400 max).
You're in trouble with the law
A third of the 2,500 reported annual arrests of U.S. citizens abroad are drug-related. To avoid trouble, do the obvious: Just say no, and never leave bags unattended. Familiarity with local laws is essential, especially in strict countries. In Turkey, all "antiquities" are owned by the state, and trying to bring home a souvenir that's a few centuries old could land you behind bars for a month. During any run-in with the law, be respectful and apologetic. If you're locked up, actively request that local authorities inform the U.S. embassy, which, according to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, must then happen "without delay." A consular officer can visit you, provide contact info for local attorneys, fill you in on the basics of the local legal system, and inform your loved ones of the situation.
You get the worst seat on the plane
It might not be on a par with getting sent to a Turkish prison, but it stinks (sometimes literally). If you're stuck with the middle seat, the seat next to a crying baby, or the one by the lavatory, politely let an attendant know you'd like to move, and why. Before things get that far, note that most airline websites show a plane's configuration and seat availability. Use the reviews on seatguru.com to help pick a good seat. If you're still not satisfied, get to the airport early and see what's open then--exit rows with extra legroom are often assigned at the last minute. When nothing else works, have a sleeping pill handy.
Your companion is missing
Before heading to that wild festival or club, follow the advice of moms everywhere and arrange for a meeting point in case you and your travel partner are separated. If you haven't done so and find yourself alone, go to a sensible home base--your hotel room, or, on day trips, the train station or your car--and stay put. If your companion is still a no-show, contact mutual friends by cell phone or e-mail, letting everyone know exactly where you are. The embassy can get in touch with hospitals and local officials, and, if necessary, put out word about a missing person.
There's no record of your reservation
Arrive at the hotel or the car-rental counter with a confirmation number and a printout of your reservation. If there's no evidence of your reservation, think about how it was made (through a third-party site? in your spouse's name?) and ask the agent to hunt accordingly. If nothing turns up, call your credit card company for a history of transactions, including dollar amounts blocked off by hotels or rental companies. It could be you're at the wrong place. Confirming reservations a few days before arrival, and rehashing special needs (late arrival, nonsmoking room, car seat), can help prevent mishaps.
When terrorist attacks or natural disasters occur, most hotels and airlines are as hospitable as possible and waive cancellation and change restrictions. The State Department fields thousands of calls asking about U.S. citizens in troubled areas--more than 15,000 inquiries were made for the 2004 tsunami alone. To keep loved ones from worrying unnecessarily, always leave a detailed itinerary of your trip. If it's impossible to get word to family and friends that you're OK, contact a consulate and give permission to relay the message. The U.S. government organizes evacuations when a location is unsafe, but in a sense, it's like Social Security: You're better off not counting on it.
Stop procrastinating and start getting prepared
· Make a photocopy of your passport.
· Write down contact info for your health insurer, credit card companies, and bank.
· Find out if, and how, your health insurance works abroad.
· Have sleeping pills handy.
Remember: Without a travel agent you're on your own.
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