These simple steps will improve your next trip.
New Year's resolutions are a good idea, in theory. Quit smoking. Read War and Peace. Train for a marathon. But do you ever keep them?Travel resolutions, on the other hand, are easier to carry out. Here is T+L's checklist for 2005: one challenge for each month of the year.
1. Duplicate important records. Store passport information, bank account and credit card numbers, and other important travel information at an encrypted on-line storage site such as the international calling card company ekit's Travel Vault (www.ekit.com; $20). You can also scan this information and save it with a "zip" utility such as WinZip (www.winzip.com; $29). The software will condense your files, which you can then e-mail to yourself as a secure attachment and retrieve on-line. If you're wary of technology, leave a photocopy of key documents with a trusted family member or friend back home.
2. Buy travel medical insurance—after you figure out how much you already have. Since most health-care plans don't cover emergency medical evacuation or even basic medical coverage overseas, it's a good idea to purchase a travel health policy. While this type of insurance is usually sold on a per-trip basis, buying annual coverage can be less expensive, depending on how many trips you take. Compare plans from 14 insurance companies and get quotes at www.insuremytrip.com. Adventure travelers and those with health concerns who already have sufficient overseas medical coverage might consider a plan that covers only emergency evacuation, like MedjetAssist (800/963-3538; www.medjetassist.com; annual plans from $195; short-term plans are also available). The company will fly you to any hospital in the world and also cover repatriation, as long as you're at least 150 miles from home.
3. Check your insurance providers for rental-car coverage policies. Do you really need to purchase $40 (or more) per day in insurance every time you rent a car?Now's the time to get to the bottom of it: what does your credit card actually cover?Gold and platinum cards usually provide some collision-damage insurance—as long as you charge the car rental to that card. You should also check your auto, health, and homeowners' policies. Your personal car policy will generally cover liability in the case of an accident, as long as you're renting the car for personal use, not business. (Some states require rental car companies to give you a minimum liability coverage, so check your contract—carefully.) Homeowners' and renters' insurance policies almost always cover your belongings when you're traveling, so it's probably not necessary to buy personal effects coverage. And personal accident insurance, which covers you and your passengers in case of injury or death, is likely to be included in your health or auto insurance. If you're renting a car outside the United States, make sure these policies cover you abroad. Also, call ahead to the rental agency to find out what that country's minimum insurance requirements are. Domestically and internationally, travel with proof of your coverage (or add it to your on-line storage site or zip file; see No. 1).
4. Study your frequent-flier mileage programs—and your statements. Are you on an elite track?What do you need to do to maintain your status?Since mileage programs rarely advertise their changes (unless they're advantageous to customers), review your program's rules at the beginning of the year. If you maintain several accounts, Mileagemanager.com (annual membership $15) not only keeps track of them but also notifies you before your miles expire and lets you know when you've earned enough for a free ticket. Its "Weblink" feature updates you on mileage promotions via e-mail. Also, keep your boarding passes until your mileage statement arrives, in case the airline doesn't credit you. It's the only proof you have that you were on that flight.
5. Take stock of how you use your mile-earning credit cards. A recent study by on-line credit card information publisher CardWeb.com revealed that among 11 credit cards sponsored by major airlines, customers earn an average of 1.4 percent back on purchases in the form of free miles but are charged about 5.9 percent more in interest than those with non-rewards cards. Most rewards cards require an annual fee; most non-rewards cards have no fee. Your mile-earning power markedly increases if you don't carry a balance. Pit your card(s) against others at CardWeb.com's Find a Card feature, which compares the APR's and fees of 25 travel rewards cards and 38 airline-sponsored miles cards.
6. Keep your medical records close at hand. Give doctors nearly instant access to your medical history by creating a profile on a Med-InfoChip (www.medinfochip.com; $70 for one profile, $100 for two). The key-sized device plugs into the USB port of any computer and can hold emergency contact information, lists of allergies and medications, family medical history, and even scans of EKG's and MRI's. It is labeled with simple instructions for medical workers. You can also upload or fax your medical dossier to personalmd.com's medical record service ($7.95 a month). The double-encrypted site is easy for health-care providers around the world to access—all they need is the data on your PersonalMD ID card, which you should carry at all times. If time zone changes throw you off, have PersonalMD send an automated medication reminder to your cell phone, PDA, or pager.
7. Designate a friend to deal with emergencies at home. From halfway around the world you call in for your messages, only to hear, "This is the alarm company. Our system shows that there has been a forced entry." Avoid this scenario by leaving a trusted family member or neighbor a set of your house keys, your alarm code, and numbers for plumbers and electricians. Also have her check on the house while you're gone.
8. Plan next year's holiday trip using award miles. Most airlines "load" their fares—or make seats available—about 330 days in advance. If you can plan this far ahead, it's the best time to capture one of the few seats the airlines allot to reward travel, particularly for high-volume periods like Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Labor Day. Smarterliving.com is issuing alerts this year—330 days before each of seven major holidays. You can also check dozens of airlines' blackout dates on webflyer.com.
9. Secure your luggage with an "approved" lock. A Travel Sentry certified combination lock (www.travelsentry.org) can be opened only by you or a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screener (with a master key). The companies that sell the lock will replace it for free in the unlikely event that a screener doesn't recognize it as an approved lock and cuts it off; however, they won't do anything to insure against pilfering by TSA personnel.
10. On the road, stay in touch with your family and friends via a personal-trip Web site. Lonely Planet's free 30-day personal Web site lets you plot your trip on a map, store up to 20 photos, record your thoughts, and alert friends and relatives when you've added new material (www.lonelyplanet.com/travel_services; annual subscription from $59). Or create your own home page for free at Virtualtourist.com: pages can include five personal albums, each with eight chapters of photos and text. Technophobic?Make a commitment to actually mail the postcards you write on your next trip.
11. Check your passport for blank pages. If your passport is starting to get crowded with stamps, the State Department will add 24 extra pages at no charge. All you have to do is download the passport amendment and validation form from its Web site (travel.state.gov) and send it in with your passport. (Or call 877/487-2778 for more information.) Allow six weeks, or ensure a two-week return by expediting the service for $60.
12. Build a trip around a personal goal. Have you always wanted to master the art of Provençal cooking, learn to speak Dutch, or lower your handicap?More than 5,300 companies list learning vacations on the ShawGuides Web site (www.shawguides.com), which allows you to search by location, interest, or time of year.
January Book next winter's cruises now for early discounts.
April Plan summer trips to Europe to avoid steep airfares.
July and August Check ski resorts for discounted season passes.
September Look for last-minute discounts on travel to Caribbean islands that are outside the hurricane belt—such as Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao.
October and November Find discounted airfares for travel during the pre-holiday lull.
December Plan next year's trips.