Welcome to the October 2009 issue of "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.

Avoiding the Airplane Cold

Many travelers would swear that they get sick after every trip or vacation. They wonder if it was the food, the water, the pina coladas -- or, like me, the airplane ride. While I don't think you can count out the pina coladas (or that burrito you bought on the street), it turns out you could be right about airplanes.

Airline carriers are also formidable carriers of the common cold. A recent study says you may be 100 times more likely to catch a cold on a plane than you are in your normal daily life, according to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Research.

Why this is the case isn't perfectly clear, but the publishers of the study investigate a panoply of possible causes, including close quarters, shared air and, as I will explain, the most likely culprit: extremely low cabin humidity.

On to the Numbers
The study found that "When the scenarios of 6 days, 24 hours or 5 hours were taken as the relevant flight exposure times to colds, passenger transmission rates for colds of 5, 23 and 113 times the normal daily ground level transmission rate were obtained." (Ominously, transmission rates for tuberculosis were also found to be dramatically increased as well.)

Thus, the common perception that flying causes colds seems to be based in fact -- maybe even 113 times over.

The Culprit: Low Cabin Humidity
The study runs through several potential sources of higher transmission, but settles primarily on a single likely cause: extremely low cabin humidity caused by low humidity at high elevations. (A review of the study reveals the conclusion that aircraft that actively recirculated air actually showed slightly lower transmission rates than those that did not.)

Most commercial airlines fly in an elevation range of 30,000 to 35,000 feet, where humidity typically runs at 10 percent or lower. At very low levels of humidity, the "natural defense system" of mucus in our noses and throats dries up and is crippled, creating a much more tolerant environment for germs to infect us.

This protective system, called the Mucociliary Clearance System, is your first line of defense against harmful germs and bacteria. To wit, if the common cold is pounced on by a sufficiently moist and percolating proboscis and throttled by your throat, you remain uninfected. Shut down those systems, and you'll be suffering within days.

Tips to Avoid the Airline Carrier Cold
1. Stay hydrated. It turns out that drinking plenty of water will not only counter the overall dehydrating effects of air travel, which can lead to headaches, stomach problems, cramps, fatigue and more, but can actually fortify your preemptive natural immune mechanisms to function considerably better. Of course, this is the case in normal daily life -- when exercising, during prolonged sun exposure, etc. Even caffeine and alcohol consumption can dry you out. However, in an airplane, where your nose and throat are on the front lines of the war with exceedingly dry air, these are the first places to suffer.

Sipping water or some other fluid regularly throughout the flight may be more effective than drinking a lot of water at one time before or during the flight; this will keep your protective system from long dry spells. (And we do mean to single out water here -- as noted above, alcohol and caffeinated drinks such as coffee or sodas can actually dehydrate you.)

Nasal mists have been found to be very effective in keeping this system working in your nose. Additionally, hot drinks are a good way to keep your protective mucous membranes working -- first, to assist in keeping you generally hydrated; second, by triggering the system into gear; and third, by directly providing moisture in the form of steam. Note that this is not a treatment per se. Rather, it just keeps your defenses strong and functioning.

2. Keep your hands clean. Your hands are the most consistent point of first contact with cold, flu and other germs. It is a direct line from armrest/seatback/handshake to fingers to fork to mouth to full-blown fever a few days later. According to a National Institutes of Health factsheet, the type of virus that causes the common cold and the flu has been found to survive for up to three hours on your skin or on objects such as armrests, TV remote control handsets, tray tables and other similar surfaces. However, the simple act of washing your hands with hot water and soap is a formidable rampart against this transfer of harmful microorganisms.

Hand washing is not just for restaurant workers and travelers; health professionals and researchers working to combat communicable diseases in many third-world countries are waging a fierce campaign to encourage residents to adopt this simple practice into their daily routines. If possible, wash your hands before any in-flight meals, and after your flight as well.

Of course, airplane cabins are tight places, and getting out of your seat to wash up before and after every snack time can be almost impossible, as the flight attendants command the aisles, your seatmates are trying to eat, tray tables are down cabin-wide, and no one involved really wants to have folks getting up and down and roaming around the cabin. (Even on the ground, the water in many locations can carry water-borne bacteria that may not agree with all Western constitutions.) In these cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends alcohol-based products made specifically for washing hands.

3. Don't forget the dental hygiene. Just as keeping your hands clean can prevent transmission of germs, using a germ-killing mouthwash in-flight may add another layer of protection while simultaneously helping to keep your throat moist. Just make sure your mouthwash bottle is three ounces or smaller to comply with the latest carry-on rules for liquids and gels.

4. Take your vitamins. The rapid response effect of vitamins is unproven, but many travelers swear by them. Charles Westover, a retired VP of fleet management for a major shipping company, starts taking vitamins two days before flying. "I have no idea if it helps at all, but of the hundreds or thousands of flights I have taken, I rarely get colds," he said. "I just take a standard multivitamin, and it has never let me down." The NIH concurs, sort of, offering that no conclusive data has shown that large doses of vitamin C will prevent colds, although it may reduce the severity or duration of symptoms.

5. Wear a face mask. The NIH cites airborne germs as one of the top two sources of cold virus infection; some travelers have taken to wearing masks either to prevent infection, or when they themselves are already infected. Personally, I would not last more than a half-hour or so behind a hot mask, but this may be an effective prevention tactic nonetheless.

As the proverb goes, an ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure -- or perhaps 113 cures.

Airlines Raising Fares Again

The last of the major network airlines matched a $10 increase in the price of many round-trip tickets, making it likely that the fare boost will stick.

By Friday, United and US Airways had matched the increase that was already in place at Delta, Continental and American.

It was the fifth increase in U.S. ticket prices this year. Airlines sometimes roll back fare increases after a day or two, but that is unlikely to happen this time because the major players matched the hike so quickly.

Network carriers concentrate operations at a few hub airports, with flights going out from the hub like spokes on a wheel. Low-cost carriers such as Southwest instead fly directly from one city to another, bypassing crowded hub airports.

Southwest and another low-cost airline, AirTran, had three-day fare sales that expired Thursday night and did not immediately match the $10 increase.

The price hike was the second in as many weeks. Still, with a recession and weak travel demand, airlines haven't been able to raise prices as often as they would like, and most lost money in the third quarter that ended Sept. 30.

Thomas Horton, the chief financial officer of American Airlines parent AMR Corp., said earlier this week that airlines have found some pricing power but need to boost fares more to earn a profit.

"We are not there yet, but we have had some traction and I would hope that the industry can get to a healthier place," he said.

Last year, there were 15 broad domestic fare hikes and 17 in 2007, according to FareCompare. The airlines said many of those increases were tied to jet fuel prices, which soared to record highs in July 2008 before plunging, then starting a new ascent in March.

Make Your Frequent Flier Miles Go Further

Does your credit card give you something back every time the cash register rings? More than half of cards issued have a rewards component -- typically worth $0.01 to $0.03 per dollar spent -- and the goodies range from free Frappuccinos to contributions to Junior's college fund.

Perks aplenty; gotchas a-go-go
Airline miles are so yesterday. To make their perks look richer, today's rewards programs offer chits with retailers, environmental groups, resorts, and even discount brokerages and college savings plans. And then there's cash back. Payouts of up to 5% are becoming standard fare. (Note the "up to" verbiage.)

New customers are wooed as fiercely as pro athletes are -- signing bonuses and all. You can often get enough points for some valuable stuff just by applying. But even though finding a loyalty program that suits you isn't difficult, cashing in on it -- well, that's another story.

According to Consumer Reports, 75% of airline miles go unused every year. It's no wonder, given the plentiful and ever-changing rewards-card restrictions. Popular frequent-flier programs have instituted tighter expiration guidelines for unused miles. Many programs render points worthless within a year or two and even start the use-it-or-lose-it stopwatch retroactively.

It's not just credit card companies watching the clock: Airlines are also forcing people to forfeit miles if enough time goes by without any activity. Often, you can revive expired miles, but at a cost -- fees that are sometimes so high, it doesn't make sense to pay them.

Nevertheless, don't give up entirely on the free-lunch promise of loyalty cards. Just recognize that going from frequent buyer to frequent flier requires some detailed planning -- and some discipline.

Concentrate to accumulate. Don't limit your point potential by spreading spending across multiple cards. And sign up for all major airlines' frequent-flier programs. They're free, and they come with member-only alerts.

Look for alliances. Keep an eye out for ways to redeem rewards with other airlines, hotels, rental car companies, and retailers. Official partners offer more value per point.

Keep track. Watch over your bounty, expirations, and deals with free programs at websites like Points.com or Mileport.com.

Don't let rewards expire. Account activity may be as simple as visiting your credit card's reward-redemption website to get magazine subscriptions or iTunes downloads. And watch the clock if you want to transfer or consolidate miles among different account holders to reach the reward. Every program has its own window during which that's allowed.

But don't cash in too soon. Tiered programs reward patience by offering bigger rewards to customers who wait and redeem more points per transaction.

Top off to cash in. If you're close to a freebie but not quite there yet, you can often buy the points you need through the airline or program. Or check out Points.com to augment, swap, redeem, or donate rewards.

Use points to pay for the priciest perks. Sometimes, a free ticket isn't the best deal. For instance, using points to upgrade from coach to business class on an international flight may actually save you more than using them to get the coach ticket in the first place.

One final note: Rewards cards often come with high interest rates, so they aren't usually a smart choice for those who carry a balance. Make sure you're the one who's being rewarded -not the credit card company 

Tips to Fight Your Travel Credit Card Dispute

It's no secret that in this recession, many travel companies are playing the discount-and-surcharge game. You know, the one where they slash prices and then add hidden fees to make up the difference. It would follow, then, that a lot of unwanted charges are popping up on credit card bills -- fees that, if not removed, will end up being contested.

Here's what you need to know in order to file a successful dispute.

1. Watch your bill

Review your credit card billing statement as soon as you get it online or through the mail. Compare receipts to charges listed on the statement. Should you see any mismatch of information, like a wrong amount or an unknown vendor, you should immediately file a dispute with you creditor.

Remember, while your dispute is under investigation, the amount in question can't be charged interest or reported as late in payment.

2. Have an airtight case

Obviously, every disputed card charge won't be decided in your favor. The weaker challenges are rejected. For instance, say someone buys a vacation package online and then the price falls. Many times, the company is not able to refund the difference, so consumers decide to take action.

Yet those still remain legitimate purchases, and a dispute isn't likely to do any good. On the other hand, if a company has violated federal or state laws, or breached its own contract, then you stand an excellent chance of prevailing.

3. Exhaust all other options

A credit card dispute shouldn't be your first move but rather a last resort. You should go to the travel company first, to try to resolve your problem. Oftentimes, the company will make amends. That might include a partial refund or credit for a future product.

Consider the resolution carefully before deciding to take your case to a dispute, which is more of a winner-takes-all proposition. You might be better off compromising.

4. Know the law

The Fair Credit Billing Act lets you dispute billing errors directly with your credit card company. It covers everything from fraudulent purchases to incorrect billing amounts to deficient merchandise.

Credit card companies must conduct a reasonable investigation within two months and send ... a letter informing the consumer of the results of its investigation.

Here's more information on the rules. Also, bear in mind that you may have other remedies. There are often consumer protection laws at the state level regarding warrantees and refunds.

5. Don't forget the exceptions

The Fair Credit Billing Act has provisions that say the purchase price must exceed $50 and the transaction needs to occur within the same state as the cardholder's address, or within 100 miles of the cardholder's address, in order for the law to apply.

But credit card companies' dispute departments do not always observe that. In practice, these provisions aren't generally enforced. So if you have a dispute on a transaction that's on the other side of the country, don't let this prevent you from filing.

6. Remember your paperwork

Documentation is important for any credit card dispute. After contacting your card company, it will review your eligibility and examine the transaction for technical compliance. If it passes both those tests, it hands the dispute off to the travel company, which eventually triggers a dispute resolution process established by each of the card networks.

This process is similar to a trial, with the card issuer representing the consumer, the merchant's bank representing the merchant and the network acting as judge and jury.  In order to win, you'll need ample documentation.

Our advice: Keep receipts.

7. If you lose, you still have options

You can complain to the Federal Trade Commission and sue if the dispute is not resolved properly.  Put differently, just because you lose a dispute doesn't mean you've lost the money.

When you've won your dispute and reported the travel company to the government be sure to show your appreciation to your credit card company. A card that successfully advocates for you, deserves your business and recommendation.

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

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