Welcome to the October 2009 issue of "Smart Traveler". The newsletter with tips and information to help make your traveling smoother.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Southwest and another low-cost
AirTran, had three-day fare sales
that expired Thursday night and did not
immediately match the $10 increase.
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
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
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.)
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.
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.
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
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,
car companies, and retailers. Official partners offer
more value per point.
Watch over your bounty, expirations, and deals with free programs at
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
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
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
international flight may
actually save you more than using them to get the coach ticket in
the first place.
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
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
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
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
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
Our advice: Keep receipts.
7. If you lose, you still
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
Remember: Without a travel agent you're on
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