More Travel Tips

A friend tells the story of walking by the housekeeping closet at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico and glimpsing the maid filling the complimentary “bottled water” straight from the tap. As someone who is extremely careful of what he eats and drinks in foreign countries, he was outraged at the thought of drinking unsafe water. “But the hotel water is purified,” the manager said with a shrug. While that may be true, I never trust the quality and cleanliness of hotel purification systems in other countries and stick to one basic rule: If you don’t personally break the seal, don’t drink it. No exceptions. Also, I only drink from disposable bathroom water glasses – but that’s another story.

Ski valets are so yesterday. What if you could get your ski and snowboard equipment rentals fitted in your hotel room after a late dinner or a delayed flight? Or at the crack of dawn so you’re first on the slopes? “Door 2 Door” by Christy Sports is a 24-hour full-service rental delivery service now available in a dozen major resorts including Aspen, Colo.; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Park City, Utah; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Vail, Colo. The company will even bring a selection of ski clothes for you to buy or rent. It’s a dream come true for anyone who hates to wait in line. Rentals for one child under 12 are free with each five-day adult rental. Call (866)323-7547 or go to for locations and prices.

Yikes! In London, $100 gets you about 50 British pounds. That wouldn’t last you from the airport to your room. I wince when I’m handed just over 65 Euros for my C-note, knowing I’ll be right back to change more. So, where can you get a little value nowadays? Obviously, anywhere that takes U.S. dollars. Not so obvious are the “foreign” destinations that do just that. Many of the Caribbean islands, aside from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, also trade in dollars. Or, in the case of Curacao and the Bahamas, their currency is based on our dollar. Elsewhere, I’d go non-euro/pound. I choose Vietnam, Switzerland, New Zealand and soon-to-change Romania.

New routes, yay! Until this month, you couldn’t fly between the U.S. and Europe on an international carrier without going through the home country “hub:” You’d have to connect in Paris on an Air France flight, or stop in Rome on Alitalia, for example. The new “Open Skies” agreement between the U.S and the European Union goes into effect March 30, opening the door to new service. Air France will now be able to go to London or Rome nonstop from the U.S. without stopping in Paris, for example. Great news for those who can’t find award seats. “Open Skies” means new routes, which in turn means new award availability to Europe. Check airline Web sites for new route announcements.

When too many people are packed in coach. it’s claustrophobic and uncomfortable. So who gets the middle-seats armrests? The aisle person argues that he’s the largest and needs it because aisle traffic bumps his arm. The window person says the fuselage curves inward cheating his head space and window elbow room. Middle seat person figures he has people on either side with no personal space and needs to mark his territory by the armrests. I say communicate. Ask seatmates if their arms are more comfortable to the back of front, sharing the armrests. It’s that or “finders keepers” every time someone shifts their position.

To fuel or not to fuel, that’s the rental-car question. Rental agencies give you several choices: You can pre-pay replacement fuel at a discounted rate and hope you return empty, you can fill the tank on your own at the best rate you can find, or you can pay an inflated gas price for returning it less than full. Agencies love you to pre-pay the fuel because there’s always gas left in the tank. The cheapest option is to refill the car yourself on the way back to the airport, but what’s your time worth? If you let them do it, even at great cost, at least you won’t smell like gas on the flight.

Preparing for that road trip or a weekend getaway? Be sure your car is as ready as you are. You’ll want to check tire pressure, which is the No. 1 cause of tire wear. Check water, oil, windshield and brake fluids, or have the car serviced if it’s time. Think about an ice scraper and snow chains in winter. I always carry jumper cables and a .can of that self-sealing tire inflator, even though my auto service card is in my wallet. Have a flashlight, blanket, first aid kit and cell phone charger for safety; water and snacks in case you can’t stop. Don’t forget wet wipes and paper towels. Something always spills, and even pets get motion sickness.

While we Americans use a lot of ice in our drinks, many countries around the world not only forgo the ice, they don’t even chill their beverages. Pubs in Britain are famous for warm beer. Italy usually serves soft drinks and alcoholic beverages without ice to avoid watering them down. Japan will only put one or two ice cubes in the glass. When traveling, remember to order drinks cold, chilled or with a glass of ice on the side, but only in a country where you’re sure of the water safety. If you can’t drink the tap water, you can’t use the ice, either. If in doubt, go without.

An airline meal is not something people rave about. In fact, people don’t rave at all lately because the meals are almost nonexistent in domestic economy class. Some airlines sell snacks or sandwiches on board, but a hot meal behind the curtain is the exception, not the rule. Surprisingly, many people still get on a plane expecting to be fed. Many tell the story of how they flew all day and got nothing to eat but a bag of pretzels. There’s a note in your flight confirmation that says “meal service,” “no meal” or “food for sale.” Check this note ahead of time so you know whether to pack a lunch or an extra 10-dollar bill. Airline food doesn’t cost peanuts.

Being computer-savvy can be a real timesaver when it comes to making travel arrangements and checking in at airports. . With the variety of travel web sites most of us know we can search for cheap fares, make an offer for rock-bottom pricing, make direct airline bookings and pay for it all without leaving our chair. Many Of us know how to use the airport kiosks to check in without waiting in line. Now you can also check in online up to 24 hours before your flight and print your boarding pass in advance. ‘Avoiding the counter, you can check your luggage at the curb and head straight for the gate. Check airline Web sites for details.

You just bought a fantastic, but nonrefundable, vacation. Should you buy trip cancellation insurance? If the money you stand to lose is more than you can afford, then yes, but getting paid is not as easy as you think. Medical emergencies are covered only with documented proof. Being called for jury service or military duty is often covered but business emergencies are not. Some cruises and tours only refund a sliding percentage depending on when you cancel. If you don’t follow the refund rules and procedures exactly, you could also lose your reimbursement. Insurance companies, often do anything to keep from paying claims, so don’t make their job easy. Read the fine print – twice.

Trying to figure out how to get around on vacation? Not comfortable driving a rental car in a strange place or don’t –want to spend the money? Major cities and tourist destinations often have comprehensive transportation systems that offer one – three and seven-day passes for visitors. They also feature specific tours of local sites and the ability to buy online in advance. For transfers, check to see if your hotel has an airport shuttle service or if there’s an airport bus that services several hotels. Ask the hotel concierge or duty manager if the public transportation is safe and effective. And make sure your taxi is metered and licensed. Pirates are not just on the water.

Before you stick your hand into the seat pocket in front of you, think about what the last few passengers may have left in there. They are the dumping ground for everything from rotten food to used diapers. It may surprise you to learn that aircraft are given a “deep cleaning” only once a month. How “deep” is still the question. Planes are “tightly cleaned” between flights (obvious trash picked up, crumbs brushed off) and “cleaned” overnight (toilets, galley, seatback pockets emptied, floors vacuumed). So before you put your hand in someone’s used Kleenex, think twice before reaching into the seat pocket – and don’t even ask me about the pillows and blankets. Yuk.

How do you get a: room at a sold-out hotel? Whether it’s a popular resort or a business convention, “sold out” doesn’t always mean no. The first thing to do is to find out what a hotel’s cancellation policy is. Almost all hotels require notification 72 hours ahead, 24 hours ahead or as short as 6 p.m. on the day of arrival. Many people wait to the very last minute to cancel, leaving the hotel with an empty room to fill. Your strategy is to figure what day your hotel’s cancellation policy kicks in, and call on that day to grab someone else’s cancellation. Call a few times or ask about a waiting list. You often get lucky!

Why do airlines only reserve seats for you if you remember to ask? By the time you remember, the good ones are gone. To get the better coach seats, you want to avoid the restrooms and galleys because they’re busy with lots of traffic. The seats in the last row and in front of exits often don’t recline, Middle seats are cramped. Bulkheads have less leg room, but no one reclines into your lap, Window seats have a view but less head room or aisle access. Show up when the counter opens to get the desirable exit row. Each airline configures its aircraft differently, so check out before your next flight for the scoop on which seats to ask for.

One unfortunate side effect of traveling is being a target for tourist-seeking pickpockets and thieves. While visitors focus on sights or maps, handbags are snatched, necklaces are grabbed, waist packs are cut and pockets are sliced. There’s the “surprise attack” – a drive-by scooter snatching. Or the “shock and awe” attack – a swarm of gypsy children whose hands are everywhere. To minimize any loss while sightseeing, keep most of your credit cards, passport, jewelry and cash in the hotel safe deposit box. Be wary of in-room safes as hotels claim they are not responsible for losses from them. Carry a photocopy of your passport on the street, divide your valuables, and use a money belt or pouch under your clothes.

How do you know that black suitcase on the baggage carousel is yours? Black is the most popular luggage choice, as it’s the most resistant to dirt and scratches, but it’s also the hardest to identify. Too often, passengers arrive home to discover they picked up the wrong suitcase because they didn’t check the luggage tag. Tying a colorful ribbon on the handle is a good way to identify your bag, but try to pick an unusual color or braid a few colors together as red is the most common choice. Always put your name, number and itinerary inside the bag, as well as on the outside, in case someone picks up your bag by mistake.

My three bags could now cost $880 in excess fees on a round-trip domestic flight on Delta. Is this true? According to the airline’s new fee schedule, my second bag would cost $100 round trip and my third bag could cost $780 round trip if it’s too big. A third bag costs a flat $125 each way. If it weighs more than the allotted 60 pounds, add $90 each way for being “overweight.” If the total width, length and height is more than 61 inches, add $175 each way for being “oversize.” Delta confirmed that for a third bag that is overweight and oversize, non-elite coach passengers will be charged three times. You can ship ahead for a lot less.

How often do you see drivers juggling cell phones while driving? For anyone driving in California, a new law is in effect regarding cell phone use in cars. Unless you have a large rubber band to hold the phone to your ear, all cell phone use in cars must be hands-free or you’ll risk tickets and hefty fines. Bluetooth devices maybe the easiest way to go, whether you install one in your car or hang it on your ear. Hard line earphones and speaker phones are an option as long as you have the ability to put two hands on the wheel. Unfortunately, until there are Bluetooth mascara wands and coffee mugs, drivers will not be truly hands-free.

Sometimes you really have to be somewhere and can’t afford to have a flight delayed or canceled. A nonrefundable cruise that will leave without you or a missed meeting that would cost you your job are two such instances. In some cases a canceled flight is no excuse. When you really have to be there, you can protect yourself somewhat by asking your travel agent to double-book your flight. The airlines frown on it, but travel agents do it all the time. After buying your desired flight, buy a fully refundable ticket on a later flight or on a different airline that will get you there on time. Just remember to cancel the refundable flight if it’s not needed before departure.

Within the swirl of new airline baggage fees and excess charges lies a little-known tip for international travelers. It survived the recent changes. When you have a stopover overseas on an itinerary that originated in the U.S., airlines are supposed to charge excess fees by the piece and not by weight. If you have international stopovers before returning to the U.S., you’re “traveling through” an international ticket. When you check in for flights overseas with the correct number of bags, you’re not supposed to be charged for excess weight within certain guidelines, only excess pieces. Many counter agents are unaware of the piece-vs.-weight exemption on international tickets, so if necessary, ask for a supervisor.

Many who spent the final week of August on a family vacation came home far from rested. “I’m exhausted!” one mom said after a week away at a major resort. Many families suffer from the got-to-get-your-money’s-worth syndrome: Do it all, stay up late, get up early – don’t miss a thing. High vacation prices cause families to crowd into one hotel room; common sense and safety mean everyone needs to stay together. After several days of over-scheduling and too much togetherness, everyone needs a little space. Try to plan a day with no plans. Take turns watching the kids. Budget a connecting room for a night or two. Take a break.

Now that summer’s over and the kids are back in school, your next extended vacation could be months away. As an alternative, “one-tank weekends” and “stay-cations” are becoming more popular as budgets dwindle and gas prices rise. A one-tank weekend consists of travel within a two-hour drive from home, getting away and back on one tank of gas. Los Angeles is known for one-tank getaways such as Santa Barbara, Ojai, Palm Springs and the beach cities. Southern California is also ideal for “stay-cations,” where you stay home and take some time off, enjoying day trips to local sights and attractions. I’ve always said, “Why wait for out-of-town visitors to enjoy a good roller coaster?”

Just reading this will make you itch. Hotels don’t talk about the problem but see it more often than they’d like to admit: bed bugs. The tiny parasite~ feed on warm-blooded animals, and if not exterminated quickly multiply. You rarely see them, but you can often see tiny black stains on the mattress. When you wake up with little red bites, you know they’ve seen you. They hide in bedding, fabrics, closets and drawers. They love to ride home in your suitcase~ Avoid encounters by checking and reporting to You’ll be surprised at the locations on the list. Note to renters: Look at the infestation map; apartment buildings are listed too.

Pouring your favorite toiletries into 3-ounce travel-size bottles is timeconsuming and annoying, especially when you run out of small containers the night before a flight. has simplified the process with an amazing selection of travel-size products under such headings as personal care, pharmacy, toys & travel games, laundry, food, even kosher beverages. Their Carry-On Caddy keeps your liquids bag accessible. My favorites are the pre-made emergency kits and care packages for military personnel, campers and students that include duct tape and medical supplies. Handcrafted gift boxes are filled with travel essentials. Travel and nontravel gift themes include “Business trips,” “Honeymoons,” “New Mommy,” “Golfer Snacks” and a “Fat-Free Salad Dressing Sampler.”

Traveling with children can be an exciting adventure or it can be traumatic and stressful. You mentally prepare your children to sit quietly in church or to get a flu shot, but too few parents prep their kids for trips. “Home” is where children feel safe and secure. Adults forget that new environments such as airports and unfamiliar hotel rooms can make children uncomfortable, so they become clingy or whiny, not knowing why. Before a trip, practice with long drives, or play “airplane” with lined up chairs. Picture books on travel and the promise of a new adventure will give your child a positive attitude and help relieve some of the stress when the travel day arrives.

When the economy is bad, frustrated families are forced to make cuts in their budgets, and the vacation is often the first thing to go. But what if you bought non-refundable airline tickets before realizing you can no longer afford the trip? It’s not a total loss. The fare on a non-refundable ticket can usually be reapplied to a new ticket in the same name within one year of the issue date, with travel completed within one year of the original flight. You will pay any difference in fare and applicable taxes. There are exceptions, so read your airline’s rules. Make sure to cancel your original flight before its departure or your unused ticket will
be voided.

Fuel prices may have dropped, but domestic airline fuel surcharges have not. In fact, there are so many add-on fees to air travel now, your discount air fare may not be such a bargain when compared to a higher fare. We’ve grudgingly faced the fact that unless you have elite status, most airlines now charge for checked luggage. Every passenger now pays exorbitant fees for overweight or oversize bags, food, beverages and headphones. Some airlines have added charges for phone reservations, paper tickets, confirmed seats and seat assignments. Under consideration are fees for pillows and blankets. So add up the fees before choosing the lowest fare and look forward to the day you’ll get a discount for not using the lavatory.

To most, the Thanksgiving weekend brings thoughts of family togetherness, turkey and football. To others, it’s a dreaded crush of too many people trying to get somewhere in a short period of time. We’ve all heard of Black Friday, the predawn shopping race that only the bravest bargain-hunters endure, but travelers dread two other black days during Thanksgiving week: black Wednesday and black Sunday, said to be the most stressful travel days of the year. To survive, allow an extra hour before the flight, be prepared at security, take a portable DVD player for kids and have a backup plan in case of delays. Think of turkey
and football.