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Help is on the Way

Banged up your car in Mexico and don't know what to do?Use the distress signal recognized around the world: SOS--International SOS, that is. A representative will race to your side to deal with insurance companies, arrange for a lawyer, or even post your bond. With operations in more than 45 cities in 39 countries spanning five continents, International SOS is like a hybrid of AAA and the United Nations that provides 24-hour help for business travelers in places with substandard medical care or where language or cultural barriers might make it difficult to get safe treatment.

Most SOS cases are relatively mundane (credit card replacement, cash advances, roadside assistance, emergency home repairs, and even flower or gift purchases), but Arnaud Vaissié, president of the company, says its state-of-the-art Falcon 2000 air ambulances perform at least three emergency evacuations a day. The group even represents clients in hostage situations: recently, staff members passed information between negotiators and victims' families in the Indian Air hostage crisis, and, after its peaceful resolution, provided post-trauma counseling.

The company began gaining popularity among prominent Western corporations when it was bought by the Singapore-based AEA in 1998. Almost 400 of the Fortune 500 companies, including Motorola, General Electric, and Conoco, have signed on. Although most clients are employees of international firms, leisure travelers can buy their own assistance packages ($55 for a 14-day trip; $96 per couple; $151 for a family of four) by calling 800/523-8661 or signing up on the Web site at www.internationalsos.com. --Hillary Geronemus

wider is better

What's the worst thing about flying coach?For most travelers it's the crowded seating. Legroom has shrunk to the point where passengers can be heard moaning in pain or even despair when the seat ahead of them begins to recline. But some relief is in sight. After years of concentrating customer-service improvements on business and first class, two airlines are turning their attention to the back of the bus.

By this month, United Airlines is expected to have finished installing Economy Plus seating in its domestic fleet, incr\g seat pitch--the distance between rows--to between 34 and 36 inches from its former 31 to 32 inches. The catch: Economy Plus applies only to the first several rows of coach seats in each plane, and is offered to elite members of United's frequent-flier program--those who fly at least 25,000 miles annually--and to passengers paying the full economy fare. If you're not in that select group, it's the usual squeeze: the rest of the seats in United's economy cabins retain the old, cramped pitch. International flights are not included in the program at all.

American Airlines has gone one better, announcing plans to expand seat pitch throughout the economy cabins of all 700-plus planes in its fleet, both domestic and international. By yanking 6.4 percent of the seats in coach, the airline reports, it will be able to increase pitch to about 34 or 35 inches on most of its planes. The new seating configuration on American's domestic fleet should be in place by November; international aircraft won't be finished until next year. --Jim Glab

let's vent

file this under trends we hate:

In an effort to stop Web-browsing guests from clogging phone lines, several hotel chains (hello, Hilton) now charge 10 cents a minute for local calls of more than 30 minutes. (Oh, we also hate hotels that still charge guests to use the gym.)

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