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Archive for April, 2010

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What students should know before traveling to Europe: Advice from Laura Carroll

A few weeks ago, Students In Europe interviewed our own Peggy Goldman about what to do and see if you’re a student spending a semester “across the pond” (a.k.a. Europe). Peggy had such a great time working with the writers that we decided to turn the tables and interview Laura Carroll, Managing Editor of Students in Europe, in a podcast.

Laura studied abroad in Paris, France when she was in college. The romantic mood of the city inspired her and she fell in love with the people, the culture, and the time away from home. Since then she’s been an advocate for students to get out of the U.S. and over to Europe for a life-changing experience.

I talked to Laura about her travels and how she’s learned to cope with home sickness, handle currency exchange rates, schedule spontaneous trips to different parts of Europe, and more. She translates all of her real-world experience into practical posts on Students in Europe.

The website is dedicated to providing young travelers everything they need to be well-prepared for their journey to Europe. Its city profiles, news updates, product and venue reviews, interviews, and tips create a field guide to European travel for students.

Even if you’re not a student, my chat with Laura offers great insight to anyone looking to spend some time living in, or exploring parts of Europe. Turn your speakers up and be prepared to get rocked with information.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

How to apply for a U.S. passport

What’s the one thing that practically everybody needs at some point and most people don’t have? And you can’t say money.

Times up! The answer: a passport. It doesn’t exactly jump to mind as a necessary piece of personal documentation, unless you have to take an unexpected trip abroad for a business meeting, a family situation, or a vacation.

Honestly, even if you don’t plan to leave the country, a passport makes for an excellent form of identification. You never know when it will come in handy. In fact, you even need one now to go to Canada.

Figuring out all the things you need can be daunting. Everything is located at the U.S. Department of State’s website, but I’ve tried to make it easier for you by distilling the pertinent information right here. Here’s how to apply for a U.S. passport.

First, get “Form DS-11: Application for a U.S. Passport” and fill it out. You’ll find it online or you can pick one it up in person at your post office or some other municipal government building.

Fill out the form and bring it to a passport acceptance facility. You have to apply for a passport in person. You cannot mail the form in. I went to the Passport Office in Philadelphia, but you can just as easily go to your post office.

You’ll need to bring three items with you: proof of citizenship, identification, and a recent photograph. You’ll need your birth certificate to prove you are a U.S. citizen. If you don’t have one, you’ll have to find something that will work just as well. For example, certificate of citizenship, baptismal certificate, census record, early school record, or family bible record are all acceptable.

Next you’ll need identification. You can use a valid driver’s license, a previously issued U.S. passport, naturalization certificate, or a current government or military I.D. Lastly, you’ll need a photo. You can get that taken anywhere, including Walgreen’s, where I got mine taken in less than five minutes. Remember, you don’t have to look like a movie star in your photo, just be recognizable. And yes, you can definitely have your photo taken in color.

When you get your photo, it’s a good idea to purchase some extras. Chances are you’re going to need visas at some point, and it’s cheaper to buy a few additional photos and keep them to use as needed. When everything is signed and verified, your application will be processed, and you’ll receive your passport in the mail four to six weeks later.

If you’re under 16 and need a passport or want to get one for your child, the same steps apply but with a few slight alterations. The biggest difference is that the minor must apply in person with both parents or a guardian.

The parents or guardian must also submit evidence of their relationship to the minor. This can be proven through the minor’s certified U.S. birth certificate, certified foreign birth certificate, or their report of birth abroad with both parents’ names. Also acceptable are an adoption decree with adopting parents’ names, court order establishing custody, or court order establishing guardianship.

If you’re anxious to know where your passport is in the application process after you’ve applied, you can check the status of your U.S. passport application online. When it finally arrives, sign it right away. Then make a couple of nice, crisp photocopies of the signature and photo pages. File away one copy, and put the other one in your wallet. This is in case you lose your passport, but I’ll talk about what to do if that happens in a later post.

If you’re considering getting a passport, I suggest applying very soon. I told you before that the fees for applying for a passport and other services might be increasing substantially in the near future. So save yourself the few extra bucks and get it taken care of now.

If you have any questions, the U.S. Department of State has comprehensive list of FAQs or you can write to me. In addition to telling you what to do if your passport gets lost or stolen, I will also cover how to renew your passport, and how to add visa pages to your passport in upcoming posts.

Travel insurance: Your answer to getting medical care when abroad

Most people think of travel insurance as a safety net if they need to cancel their trip. If an unexpected sickness, injury, or some other emergency occurs, travel insurance is there to cover the costs. The more you travel, the more likely it is that an illness could affect a trip before you leave or while you’re traveling.

It happened to me. I was bedridden with a stomach bug in between two trips. There was no way I could get on a plane. But I bought travel insurance, which is something I always do. I provided the travel insurance company with a note from my doctor, and they reimbursed me for the cost of the trip.

But what happens when you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language, and you get a stomach bug, sprain your ankle, or some other malady? How will you find a reputable doctor or hospital? Will your health insurance cover you? Will your travel insurance cover you? Will you be out-of-pocket?

It’s enough to make you want to stay home. Fear not! The solution is, in all cases, travel insurance. The travel insurance policy Friendly Planet recommends covers up to $25,000 in medical costs and another $25,000 in emergency medical evacuation.

When you’re outside the country and there is a medical emergency, simply call the underwriter, Travel Guard. They will give you the guidance you need and ensure your needs are covered. The Travel Guard service is online 24/7. And as you might expect, they even have a translator available to ensure accurate communication between you and the doctor or hospital.

Beyond medical attention, there are other things you want your travel insurance to cover. For example, prescription eyeglass replacement, prescription drug replacement, relaying information to family members, making travel arrangements for visitors to the bedside of the hospitalized, and a lot more.

A friend of a friend was at Disney World with his family. It was a hot summer day, and he was perspiring. His five-year-old son had just stepped off the merry-go-round. As he bent over to scoup him up in his arms, his glasses slid off his sweaty face, hit the ground, chipped, and cracked.

Worse, he’s extremely nearsighted. He spent the rest of his vacation with a broken lens that not only impaired his vision, but looked funny. If he had travel insurance, he would have quickly been seeing things clearly again.

While travel insurance protects you, be prepared to pay for treatment at the time of service. Make sure you get a receipt and a copy of the bill. Store them in a safe place. Better yet, take photographs of them with your smart phone or camera. If your smart phone supports e-mail, send the pictures to yourself.

Now, no matter what, you’ll be sure to have copies of the bills and receipts. You’ll need them to be reimbursed when you get back to the U.S. Even then, if you’re hospitalized and the cost is beyond your means to pay, there’s a fail-safe. Travel Guard will handle the billing for you.

The best part is, in addition to the peace of mind, the insurance cost is minimal. It runs between $99-$159 per person, depending upon your total trip cost. Tell us you want it, and we simply add it to your Friendly Planet invoice.

It’s important to note that you must sign up for travel insurance before you make your final payment to Friendly Planet. Even more important, note that pre-existing conditions are ONLY covered if you sign up for the insurance within seven days of making your reservation or deposit.

Even if you’re not traveling with Friendly Planet, you can still get travel insurance. Just hit Google and search for “travel insurance.” Plenty of companies, mostly tour operators, will appear. Here’s a consumer tip: If you buy the travel insurance from your tour operator, you’ll save money on the premium.

I can’t say this clearly or strongly enough: Travel insurance is something you should absolutely sign up for in hopes that you’ll never have to use it. And the odds are, you probably won’t have to use it. But it’s important to have this blanket of protection should something unexpected happen. From my own personal experience, I can tell you, it will pay for itself.

And the winners of our eight Space Bags TO GO are …

Time is up! Our Space Bags TO GO contest is over and I’ve randomly picked the winners. I could just type the names here in my post, but what fun is that? Melissa, a Friendly Planet blogger, grabbed her webcam and recorded herself drawing the names. Watch it now to see if you are one of the lucky winners!

Congrats to our winners! THANK YOU to everyone who submitted their best packing tip. I’ll be putting them together into one post to share with our readers, and hopefully make packing a little easier.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Thailand protests turn violent, four Friendly Planet departure dates canceled

This post has been updated here.

Until a few hours ago, I honestly thought the situation in Bangkok would be resolved peacefully, with the calling of a new election. However, I just spoke with our representatives in Thailand and found out the protests have turned violent. As a result, we’ve decided for the safety of our travelers to cancel the following departures to Thailand.

There have been a number of explosions on Silom Road, including inside the Saladaeng Skytrain station, in Bangkok at 20.30 hours Bangkok time this evening. Several people were injured including three foreigners and one Thai person has been reported dead. The situation is now very tense. Hundreds of Bangkok residents confronted the protesters who have occupied Rajadamri Road in central Bangkok for the last two days.

If one of these departure dates is yours, we are contacting you right now to give you all of your options and make sure you understand all the details.

All Friendly Planet passengers in Bangkok are being contacted right now and advised to stay inside their hotels until tomorrow morning. We are strongly advising against any movement in Bangkok and we will not be moving passengers from any hotels this evening.

We are continuing to monitor the situation around the clock and will keep all passengers affected through direct e-mails and phone calls. We’ll also continue to post updates on the blog.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Thailand in this difficult time. I hope this emergency situation will pass quickly, and calmness will be restored to this beautiful country.

Safari in Kenya: A roaring good deal at just $1,899

It might have taken me thirty years in tourism to do it, but I’m ecstatic to report that I’ve created my dream travel deal. I’m going to say it’s a miracle of tourism packaging. And that’s saying a lot considering I’ve been to the ends of the earth and back (yes, including Antarctica).

For the first time ever, Friendly Planet is offering the eight-day Kenya Safari Express for only $1,899. There has never been a safari tour with so many included excursions or such superior accommodations for a price like this.

Typically, an exotic African safari comes with a hefty price tag. We’re talking $3,000 to $5,000 and right on up. But this unbelievable deal opens the door for more travelers to see majestic Africa’s sweeping vistas, teeming cities, and magnificent wildlife. The experiences we’ve packed into this tour will leave your head spinning.

During a day in Nairobi, you’ll reach out and touch elephants at the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphans’ Nursery and feed giraffes from the palm of your hand.

At Lake Naivasha, home to over 400 species of birds, you’ll tour by boat while hippo, giraffe, buffulo, zebra, and waterbuck watch curiously from the shore.

The photogenic plains of the Masai Mara game reserve are like something out of a movie. During two action-packed days of game drives you’ll see Africa’s big five game: lions, African elephants, cape buffaloes, leopards, and black and white rhinoceroses. They’ll be so close you can leave the zoom lense at home.

And in true Friendly Planet tradition, you’ll have the chance to mingle with the locals. Spend an afternoon with the friendly, indigenous people in a Misaim village, and get a feel for life on the plain.

As always, the hotel and lodge accommodations are top notch, bringing a touch of luxury to the region’s natural beauty. I can say from experience that there’s no better way to relax after a day bumping over the landscape than lounging poolside with a cold drink.

Didn’t cross enough things off your bucket list during eight days in Kenya? An optional three-day extension to Dubai will take care of a few more. Experience the intersection of traditional Islamic culture and contemporary luxury in one of the world’s most talked about tourist destinations.

Stroll through the narrow lanes of the Bastakiya District marketplace, a relic of 900-year-old Dubai. Ride one of Burj Khalifa’s 57 elevators, the tallest building in the world, at 2,625 feet. Dine on an Arabian dhow cruise down Dubai Creek, once the hub of bustling pearling and fishing industries, and today, the best way to take in the twinkling city lights. At night, wine and dine at the luxurious Fairmont Hotel.

We couldn’t be more excited about this one. This tour is the perfect example of what Friendly Planet is here to do: offer incredible experiences at incredible value. If I’ve whet your appetite enough, find the full itinerary and all the details on our Kenya Safari Express, plus optional Dubai extension page on the Friendly Planet Travel website.

Friendly Planet erupts with activity after Iceland volcano blows

As I mentioned in my previous post, I don’t have to tell you about the travel disaster that hit so many people in Europe and elsewhere. I thought you might find it interesting to know what we, at Friendly Planet, did after the volcano in Iceland erupted.

As soon as we heard about it, we called all hands on deck because we had travelers that were crisscrossing Europe, and as far away as India, as part of their travel. We had to try and make sure that we knew where they were, what they needed, and had a steady stream of information going to them about what to do.

We started calling airlines, but that turned out to be a waste of time. The lines were absolutely overloaded and it was impossible to get through. So, we went online in order to reroute as many of our travelers as we could.

We started on Friday and we worked straight through Sunday, getting everyone we could back to the United States. I was impressed and inspired by how hard the Friendly Planet team worked to accommodate everyone and how appreciative many of our travelers were of our efforts.

Mandi Fulk of our air department deserves a special mention here. She became a whirling dervish, simultaneously handling calls, finding odd seats, and piecing together amazing itineraries to get people home quickly. Thanks to her efforts, most of the people who got home in a timely way avoided the extra days and weeks of waiting to get on later flights.

The traveling public probably doesn’t realize that in a crisis, travel agents, like travelers, are forced to slog through on their own. Our industry is fragmented, and full of rules that make things difficult.

It isn’t easy to sift through thousands of flights. When every flight is booked solid and there are literally thousands of travelers competing for those odd seats, finding the seat or two that will bring Mr. and Mrs. Jones home is very difficult. While we didn’t succeed 100 percent, I am very happy to say that we got pretty close. Who is it that said, “the enemy of very good is excellent?”

What to do if you’re stranded in an airport

I don’t have to tell you about the calamity that hit European (and other) air travelers last Friday. Only yesterday, flights began getting off the ground and air transportation finally started to return to normal. According to a report I heard on NPR this morning, it will be weeks and weeks before the backlog of flights is cleared. Who knows how long it’ll take for all the thousands of stranded passengers to get where they need to go.

It’s not every day that you have to worry about what to do if a volcano erupts and halts air traffic. On the other hand, as we learned this week, it can happen. That got me thinking. What do travelers need to know in the event that some force of nature grounds air traffic and throws their plans into gridlock?

Here are a few suggestions you can follow if you find yourself stranded, sharing an airport with hundreds of other travelers in the same boat as you.

  • Call the emergency numbers your travel agent gave you. Friendly Planet gives everyone emergency numbers to call in their destination as well as our own number that is manned 24/7. Report what has happened and ask if any assistance can be provided by your agents and their representatives and what you should do.
  • Stay calm. Don’t look for anyone to blame, and don’t become overwhelmed. And don’t shout at the ticket agent who is dealing with the snaking line of equally upset travelers. Be the one traveler who is sympathetic to that agent. Out of gratitude for your graciousness, the agent will be more inclined to help you before the guy behind you, who has turned red from frustration.
  • Don’t waste any time. Take action yourself, and don’t depend on someone to come rescue you. If your flight is canceled and you have not gotten immediate instructions from your agents, take matters into your own hands. Start working to find yourself a seat on a different airline. You can go the Web sites of airlines that fly from where you are to where you need to go, check availability on the spot, and often, grab a vacant couple of seats way before that hassled reservation agent behind the counter gets to you. Call the toll free numbers of the airlines if you can’t get online. In an airport, you can even go from counter to counter, if necessary, to look for seats.
  • Book a new seat. Once you’ve found a seat and booked it, take your luggage and go to the new airline’s counter. Check in and say you have a reservation. Make sure you wrote down the new reservation number. Show the agent your original ticket and say you want to go on the newly reserved flight. The airline might ask you to pay additional fees , and I suggest you pay the fees if necessary. If the fees are extreme, try and negotiate. The agents behind those counters have more leverage than they want us to know. And you can always ask for a supervisor in an effort to lower those fees. But even if you have to pay something for a new ticket, buy it if you can. It’ll be worth it, trust me.
  • Get a receipt. You can claim that extra money from your travel insurance. If you purchased travel insurance (everyone should purchase it), you will be reimbursed for your extra ticket expenses due to involuntary rerouting, as long as you rebook yourself in the same cabin as your original flight. If you’re flying in coach, don’t rebook yourself in business class if you want the insurance to cover your entire involuntary rerouting expense. If you don’t have travel insurance and you have to swallow the cost of that new ticket, consider yourself lucky. You got home and didn’t have to spend even more money on hotel accommodations and food. Some stranded passengers will be spending more than a week or even two weeks in a hotel, at their own expense. And if you’re missing work on top of that, the extra cost for the new ticket might start to look like a pretty good bargain after all.

What to do if you can’t book yourself on a new flight

  • Book a hotel room right away. If you have to stay overnight, the same rules apply. Don’t wait around for someone to offer you a free hotel room. If one flight was cancelled, then yes, the airlines would get you a room to stay in. But this will not happen when air traffic is suspended. Find a hotel room on your own or you’ll be sleeping on cot in an airport gate area, along with hundreds of other stranded travelers.

Remember, if you’re traveling away from home, be prepared for the unexpected. Always have extra cash available before you go away on vacation in case an event like this one occurs. Hopefully you’ll never have to dip in to your stash, but if you have to bear some extra costs in an emergency, you’ll be covered and won’t feel panic.

Most important of all, try to keep a level head. There are things that happen over which you have absolutely no control. When that happens to you, you need to think creatively and calmly about how you will solve the problems that arise from those things that happened.

You have no control over the volcano or the grounded flights, but you do have control over how you will choose to handle yourself during the crisis. Sometimes, the very best and most wonderful adventures are those that happen serendipitously.

At the very least, use that extra time that you’re stuck to check out one new thing about that destination that you wouldn’t have had time for otherwise. Browse the bookstore at the airport for a new read. Give yourself the luxury of a nap in the midst of chaos. Watch the people go by. Write in your journal. Whatever it takes to make the time pass productively until your life is back in your control once again.

If you follow these steps, you’ll get back to the United States much faster than waiting for the airlines to help you. If you have any questions about what to do in a travel emergency, write to me directly.

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About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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