A to Z Guide to Travel Secrets You Need to Know

A to Z Guide to Travel Secrets You Need to Know

Steven Guarnaccia A to Z Guide to Travel Secrets You Need to Know Steven Guarnaccia
Steven Guarnaccia A to Z Guide to Travel Secrets You Need to Know
Steven Guarnaccia
From airline ticket booking loopholes to zipping precious travel documents, we’ve uncovered a wealth of money-saving shortcuts and insiders’ insights to help you travel like a pro.

ACT AT THE RIGHT TIME. To increase your chance of getting a good price on your next flight, keep in mind that carriers must release new airfares to a central clearinghouse (called the Airline Tariff Publishing Company) at certain hours; on weekdays, the best times to look for new fares are just after 2 p.m., 4:30 p.m., and midnight. T+L Tip: Tickets that were reserved but never paid for usually appear after midnight, so the selection is especially rich then. On weekends, fares are updated just once a day, around 5 p.m.

BANK OVERSEAS WITH FEWER FEES. Bank of America has partnerships with financial institutions throughout the world, which means that customers can withdraw money at one of the partner banks without paying extra fees. The company’s Global ATM Alliance includes Barclays (the U.K.), BNP Paribas (France), China Construction Bank (China), Deutsche Bank (Germany), Santander Serfin (Mexico), Scotiabank (Canada), and Westpac (Australia and New Zealand). Some banks, such as HSBC and Citibank, have enough overseas locations that you’ll find their branches abroad. Before you travel, call your bank to see what locations—or partnerships—it has in the area you plan to visit.

CRUISE SOLO. Cruise lines generally charge single travelers a supplement. This fee can cost the solo cruiser from 10 to 100 percent more than the per-person rate for a double-occupancy cabin. Avoid, or at least minimize, the extra expense by booking one of the few single cabins that are available on some older ships, such as the QE2. But book early—as many as 8 to 10 months in advance—to secure one of the singles. Or, check with your travel agent to find out which lines have the lowest single supplement; among the least expensive are Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, and Silversea, all of which charge less than 150 percent for those traveling alone.

DRIVE FEE-FREE. Most rental-car companies charge a daily fee of $3 to $18 to allow a second driver behind the wheel (that means a week’s rental could cost as much as an extra $126). But one little-known fact is that spouses and domestic partners are often exempt. Avis, Budget, and Enterprise waive the fee for a spouse or significant other (the companies confirm status by comparing addresses on your ID’s). Another solution: join Alamo’s Quicksilver program, National’s Emerald Club, or Hertz’s #1 Club to have this charge similarly waived for a spouse or partner who shares your address.

EARN HIGHER STATUS FROM SCRATCH. On a round-trip 10,600-mile American Airlines flight from New York to Buenos Aires, T+L features editor Niloufar Motamed recently catapulted from Gold to Platinum. How?Before boarding, she signed up for AA’s Platinum Challenge. The Gold and Platinum Challenges, which aren’t publicized anywhere on AA.com, allow travelers three months to rack up enough points to qualify them for elite status (with a full-fare economy ticket, one mile equals one point; for discounted economy fares, one mile equals a half-point). Gold status requires 5,000 points; Platinum, 10,000 through this program. As Motamed discovered, one very long round-trip flight may just do the trick. If you have a lot of travel scheduled in a short amount of time, call AA’s service center (800/882-8880) for details. Prepaying for flights on United may also bump you up in status—and with a single swipe. Buy a $5,000 card for instant Premier status, a $10,000 card for Premier Executive status, and a $20,000 card for 1K status. Fliers have one year to use the cards before they expire.

FOCUS YOUR SEARCH FOR KID-FRIENDLY SAFARIS. "Eastern Africa is a better option for families with young children because more closed Jeeps are used in this area than in South Africa," A-List agent Bob Berghaier of Premier Tours suggests. The variation exists because open-air game drives started and became popular in South Africa, Berghaier explains. Be sure to ask about the mode of transport before booking a safari for your family.


GET THE MOST OUT OF BEING BUMPED. Some carriers initially offer a coupon for a free domestic ticket to volunteers who give up their seats on an oversold flight. If you agree to be bumped, ask for a travel credit voucher instead—a dollar amount that can be used toward the purchase of a future flight. (About $300 is the going rate, though gate agents often up the ante if they’re having a tough time finding volunteers.) Vouchers that are good for a round-trip ticket (as opposed to ones with a dollar amount attached to them) are subject to the same restrictions as frequent-flier awards—blackout dates and increasingly tighter capacity controls—making them much more difficult to use. The monetary voucher, however, is good for any flight and doesn’t carry any restrictions. Also, tickets you purchase with a monetary travel voucher qualify for frequent-flier miles, while those from travel credit vouchers don’t.

HEAR A HUMAN VOICE. After losing far too much time on hold when he called for customer-service help, Paul English, chief technology officer at Kayak.com, began a quest to guide people out of frustrating automated-phone loops. The results of his research across 500 companies are now available to the public at Gethuman.com, a database of information and advice on reaching a real person. Some examples: punch the pound key (#) four times when calling Orbitz; dial 1 and then 7 to bypass the automated system at Starwood’s Four Points by Sheraton; select your language and then press 1 and 0 to get to an operator at the U.S. State Department’s passport office.

INSURE YOUR TRIP EARLY IF YOU’RE GOING TO THE CARIBBEAN DURING HURRICANE SEASON. Many insurance policies have a little-known loophole called the "named-event clause," which states that once a tropical storm has received a name from the National Weather Service, insurance companies are no longer required to pay policy-holders who cancel their trips. If you have plans to travel to an island from June to November, buy your travel insurance when you book the trip, or soon after.

JUMP AMUSEMENT-PARK TICKET QUEUES. "If you do nothing else right when visiting a theme park, buy your tickets online in advance," says Robert Niles, editor of Themeparkinsider.com. "Tickets have grown almost as complicated as airline fares." A quick lesson: "park hoppers" are tickets that allow customers to visit multiple parks in one day; "flex plans" give buyers more à la carte options (including food and passes to cut lines); and "VIP experiences" offer special access, such as reserved seats to shows. Navigating the many choices takes time, so it’s best to sort it all out before arriving, which will also give you a head start on the long lines.

KNOW WHO EMPLOYS YOUR CONCIERGE. A surprising number of hotels now outsource their concierge services to third-party companies, a trend that Jack Nargil, of the Hay-Adams hotel in Washington, D.C., and spokesman for concierge association Les Clefs D’Or, says can work against the consumer and in favor of tour outfitters that benefit from increased business. For example, Expedia now operates 84 concierge desks across North America, and hotels managed by Hyatt, Marriott, and Starwood are among those that have farmed out their concierge services. This is a problem, Nargil says, because with concierges who are not operating independently, "consumers won’t necessarily get advice or reservations that are tailored to their needs." If you’re going to a destination where you will be relying on the concierge, Nargil suggests that before you book a room, ask if the concierge is employed directly by the hotel or by an outside company.


LEAVE TICKETS ON HOLD. Most companies that sell "non-refundable" airline tickets allow customers 24 hours, or until midnight the next day, to cancel the purchase and get a full refund—but they don’t necessarily shout this policy from the rooftops. Here, an overview of major airlines’ and other travel companies’ rules regarding cancellations. (Of course, make sure you read the specific "terms and conditions" for your ticket.)

American
Allows 24-Hour Hold: Yes
Gives Refunds Within 24 Hours: No

Continental
Allows 24-Hour Hold: Yes
Gives Refunds Within 24 Hours: Yes

Delta
Allows 24-Hour Hold: No
Gives Refunds Within 24 Hours: Yes

JetBlue
Allows 24-Hour Hold: No
Gives Refunds Within 24 Hours: Yes

Northwest
Allows 24-Hour Hold: No
Gives Refunds Within 24 Hours: Yes

Southwest
Allows 24-Hour Hold: Yes
Gives Refunds Within 24 Hours: Yes

United
Allows 24-Hour Hold: Yes
Gives Refunds Within 24 Hours: Yes

US Airways
Allows 24-Hour Hold: Yes
Gives Refunds Within 24 Hours: No

Expedia
Allows 24-Hour Hold: No
Gives Refunds Within 24 Hours: Yes

Orbitz
Allows 24-Hour Hold: No
Gives Refunds Within 24 Hours: Yes

Travelocity
Allows 24-Hour Hold: No
Gives Refunds Within 24 Hours: Yes

MAXIMIZE YOUR MILES. Miles and points are interchangeable from one company to the next, and sometimes converting miles works in your favor. However, you’ll always lose something when converting one airline’s miles to another’s. Alternatively, when you transfer your American Airlines miles to Hilton HHonors points, you get a one-to-two ratio. Explore all your options at Insideflyer.com.

NAVIGATE NATIONAL PARKS LIKE A PRO. Anyone who has visited a national park in the summer knows that the lines can get out of control. Kurt Repanshek of nationalparkstraveler.com advises taking advantage of secondary entrances. At the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, for example, an underused entrance called the Cataloochee, in the southeast corner, leads you to a collection of 19th-century cabins that are similar to the ones at the Cade’s Cove central area—except that they’re not at the end of an 11-mile road that can take three or four hours to navigate on a busy weekend. At Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, you can bypass the main Nisqually entrance for the one at Carbon River, in the northwest corner, that goes right to a rarely visited glacier. Locate underused entrances online at nps.gov or by calling a park directly.


ORCHESTRATE AN OPERA NIGHT FOR LESS. Traveling to New York and dying to see La Traviata?Until the end of the 2007 season, 200 orchestra seats will be available for $20 a ticket (an 80 percent discount) for each Monday through Thursday performance at the Metropolitan Opera, thanks to a major donation by managing director Agnes Varis and her husband, Karl Leichtman. Head to the Met’s box office (30 Lincoln Plaza) two hours before curtain time to get them.

PROTECT YOURSELF FROM PASSPORT SNAFUS. If your passport is due to expire in the next six months and you plan to travel abroad, check the passport rules of the country you’re visiting—some require your passport to be valid for three to six months beyond the date you enter the country. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Israel, for example, all mandate a six-month period of validity, starting from the day you enter the country. For information about passport requirements, call the country’s consulate directly.

QUANTIFY HOW QUIET YOUR HOTEL ROOM IS. A Sound Transmission Coefficient (STC) is a number that contractors use to rate how well partitions, doors, and windows block sound; the higher the STC, the quieter the room. Look for a score above 50, an indication that even the loudest sound from the next room will be muffled. (Ratings below 34 mean paper-thin walls and possible sleepless nights.) Kimpton Hotels leads the pack in quietness; the group recently spent $1 million to install double-paned windows and an extra layer of drywall in each of its rooms in the Hotel Palomar Washington D.C., which opened in September 2006. The Palomar now has an STC of 60.

RIDE THE RAILS FOR LESS. Eurail passes aren’t only good for slower, state-run trains. Customers also have access to privately owned, premier, high-speed trains in the countries their passes cover. For example, there’s Artesia between Italy and France; Thalys in Germany, Belgium, and France; and the Eurostar between England and France. Pass holders do need to pay for a seat reservation, a fee that’s usually less than $20.

SAVE AT THE ON-BOARD SPA. Many cruise lines offer port-day specials on spa treatments; while everyone else is cavorting on land, you can get a manicure, pedicure, or facial for up to 20 percent off.

THINK TWICE ABOUT WAITING IN LINE AT THE GATE WHEN YOUR FLIGHT IS CANCELED. If the delay is the airline’s fault (e.g., a mechanical problem or a computer glitch), and your carrier can’t get you to your destination within two hours of your scheduled arrival time, most airlines will put you on another carrier under a provision known as Rule 240. (Note: airlines are not required to adopt the pre-deregulation Rule 240; read the contract of carriage to determine if your carrier does.) If you are facing a long delay, check the electronic arrival-and-departure display in the terminal to look for other flights—even on other airlines—going to your destination. Then act fast; your chances of getting a seat on a desired flight are significantly better if you just pick up a phone to call the airline’s toll-free number.

USE AIRLINE CODE SHARES TO FIND BETTER FARES. If you’re considering a flight that is operated by two airlines, check the price with both companies before buying your ticket. Each carrier is free to set its own price, which often results in one offering a lower price for an identical flight. For instance, a search on Orbitz for a nonstop flight from Boston to Milan at press time turned up Delta Flight 8155, returning on Delta Flight 8156, for $1,427. The flights are actually operated by Alitalia (as flights 0619 and 0618, respectively), which was selling the same itinerary for $994.

VIE FOR VALUE AT SEA. If a cruise’s price is your primary concern, consider making a category-guarantee reservation rather than one in a specific cabin. You will get the best available cabin in that category (after all other rooms have been assigned), at the lowest possible cost. For example, a category-guarantee reservation on Crystal Cruises for the highest grade of room carries a savings of $1,255 for a seven-day cruise. It is a risk, however, since you won’t know exactly what you’re getting until you check in.


WARM UP TO "WAVE SEASON," WHAT CRUISE LINES CALL THEIR PEAK BOOKING PERIOD. According to Carolyn Spencer Brown, of Cruisecritic.com, "If you’re interested in getting a suite for less, start looking after New Year’s. January through March is the best time to get value-added extras like free airfare, or an upgrade to a suite or balcony cabin for around $100."

X MARKS THE SPOT. Locate speed traps (not that anyone is speeding!) in Europe on ViaMichelin.com. The site includes detailed maps with approximate driving times, up-to-date notations on roadwork, prices for tolls and gas—and the exact location of speed cameras along your route.

YES TO Y-UP FARES. A Y-Up fare is a special kind of seat category—sometimes also called a Q-Up or a Z—which can put you in the front of the plane for about half the price of a first-class ticket. Airlines describe the elusive code as either deeply discounted first-class or full-fare economy class with an automatic upgrade. Until recently, these fares were difficult to find; travel agents have always known about them but tend to be reluctant to suggest Y-Up tickets to customers because they usually cost about $100 more than a ticket for a full-fare coach seat. (Meanwhile, airlines don’t publicize them, because first-class ticket sales yield far more profit.) Last year, FareCompare.com, which tracks national and international fares from the U.S. and Canada, began publishing Y-Up prices on its Web site in an easy-to-navigate format.

ZIP PRECIOUS DOCUMENTS. You already know you should carry a copy of your passport and driver’s license. (How many of us actually do so is another story.) A surefire 21st-century solution: Make digital scans of your documents, then e-mail them to a Web-based account. Scan and save your ID’s with a zip program such as WinZip (www.winzip.com; $30), then e-mail yourself compact versions in a secure form, which you will be then able to retrieve from anywhere in the world.


• On average, only one out of every 10,000 air travelers in the United States is bumped from a flight.

• Almost 100 U.S. national parks offer public transportation, allowing visitors to leave their cars at the entrance.

• Looking for a single cabin?The Queen Elizabeth 2 has 136; the Queen Mary 2 has none.

• In France, the speed limit on autoroutes is 130 km per hour (80 mph) in fair weather, but only 110 km per hour when it’s raining.

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