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Archive for December, 2010

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Travel gadgets to get you comfortable up in the air

If your travel plans this holiday season include a long, international flight, chances are it’s going to be crowded. In the U.S. alone, 43.6 million people are expected to use air travel this winter holiday period, up 3 percent over 2009. But crowded airplanes inevitably mean noisy passengers.

So how do you block out the noise around you to listen to your music and movies, or get some shut eye? In my search for the perfect travel gear, I found a few gadgets that will help cancel out the sound around you and get you comfortable in your seat.

Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones. I’m sure you’ve seen fellow travelers slide these headphones on in the airport and as soon as you can turn on your electronics in flight. They cover your ears completely and block out all sound around you.

They might look big and bulky, but are unexpectedly lightweight and comfortable. And I can’t forget to mention that the sound quality from Bose is superb. Crisp, clear sound will make you feel like you’re in a theater. You can try them on at any electronic store and you’ll quickly see why they’re so popular and worth the hefty price tag. Available online for $299.95.

Shure SE535 Sound Isolating Earphones. If you prefer earphones to headphone and your budget permits you a special splurge, these little ones will do the trick. They deliver spacious sound with rich bass while isolating the noise around you. Available in clear or metallic, these earphones also come with a detachable cable for easy replacement if the cables get damaged.

To get the noise isolation, the earbuds have to fit just right. But don’t worry, included are sound isolating sleeves in three different sizes to ensure a customized fit as well as a handy airline adapter that’s compatible with European airplane armrests. Available online for $582.93.

Dreamsacks Airline Comfort Sack. Now that you’ve gotten the noise taken care of, it’s time to get comfortable with a blanket, pillowcase, and eye shade. Unless you plan to fly business or first class, chances are you won’t see any of these items for free on your flight.

And you won’t have to waste precious carry-on space by bringing on these useful amenities, because everything in the Comfort Sack rolls into a 12 inch bag that is less than a pound to carry. Snuggle up in your seat with these accessories and you’ll be resting in no time.

The silk blanket is 43 inches by 72 inches with a 10-inch pocket to tuck your feet in to stay warm. The silk pillowcase is 15 inches by 20 inches, the same size as a typical airline pillow. And the silk eye shade blocks out the light. Available online for $59.00.

Any one of these three items will help make traveling a little more quiet and peaceful. Have any other suggestions that would make traveling smoother? Leave them in a comment on this post.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Air travel expected to be up 3 percent this winter holiday

Yesterday the Air Transport Association of America (ATA) announced that it expects to see a 3 percent increase over 2009 in air travel this winter holiday period, which spans from Dec. 16, 2010 through Jan. 5, 2011.

Just like we saw over the Thanksgiving holiday, more travelers are using air travel this year as it continues to be the safest form of transportation.

Despite reports of backlash against the TSA’s new airport security measures, this uptick in air travel shows that travelers are willing to endure some inconvenience to ensure a safe flight.

Daily passenger volumes are expected to range from 1.7 million to 2.3 million during the holiday. The busiest days are expected to be Dec. 21 to 23, Dec. 26 to 30, and Jan. 2 and 3, according to the ATA.

If you’re one of the expected 43.6 million passengers to head to the airport this holiday, just remember one thing: keep your cool. I’ve said this before, but I think it’s important to reiterate during the holidays. A friendly smile and a polite request will not only make someone else feel good, but will produce the best results for you.

If you want some more statistics on air travel, the new TSA security measures, and how to avoid some common travel fees, here a few posts you can thumb through.

Holiday travel: Is it safe to fly? November wasn’t a good month for the air travel industry. Every few days brought with it reports of air cargo bombs, fuselages ripping apart, and engine failures. But despite the reports, the latest statistics along with an infographic demonstrate how safe air travel really is.

Navigating the TSA’s new airport security measures this Thanksgiving. In light of the TSA’s new airport security measures, here’s a detailed list on what you should expect at the airport this holiday. With this knowledge, you’ll find it easier to get through the check-in process while doing your part to ensure safety as you travel.

10 travel gotchas to watch out for. No one likes to get hit with unexpected fees when traveling. Even I, an experienced traveler, sometimes get tripped up by extra airline and hotel costs. To help you avoid getting snagged too, I’ve listed my top ten fees to watch out for. Some of these you might not even know exist.

Three-time Friendly Planet traveler reviews our South African Explorer

Before Friendly Planet’s South African Explorer tour sold out for 2010, Holly Pecarek from Atlanta, Ga. was able to book a reservation. When she returned from South Africa, she sent me an e-mail that made my day.

While I was reading it, I found out that this was her third tour with us. Thanks Holly for continuing to choose Friendly Planet Travel! Read on to see what makes Holly a loyal customer. I copied the e-mail below (verbatim).

“Unreal trip! This is my 3rd tour with Friendly Planet and I have enjoyed every one of them. It was so organized and the guides so friendly! I don’t know how you all make any money because the accomodations are always top-notch! Amazing trip from start to finish. I can’t wait to pick my next trip! Thanks for everything!” – Holly Pecarek, Atlanta, Ga.

Thanks again for your note Holly! I look forward to hearing about tour number four. ;) And for the rest of the folks out there, if you’re disappointed that our South African Explorer tour is sold out, don’t be! Take a gander at our new Best of South Africa tour. Departure dates are still available for 2011.

10 travel gotchas to watch out for

No one likes to get hit with unexpected fees when traveling. Even I, an experienced traveler, sometimes get tripped up by extra airline and hotel costs. To help you avoid getting snagged too, I’ve listed my top ten fees to watch out for. Some of these you might not even know exist. At the end of my post, I bullet them in a short list that you can print and keep with you.

Baggage size and weight limitation fees. Airlines make carry-on and checked baggage fees obvious, but what about the fees a associated with exceeding weight or size limitations? Bags over 50 pounds and/or 62 inches long will cost you extra, which will vary by carrier.

However, these fees can be easily avoided. Check the website of the carrier you’re flying for its specific baggage weight and size limitations. Then weigh and measure your baggage before you head to the airport.

Standby fees. Years ago you never had to pay an additional charge to standby for a flight if you missed the one you were originally scheduled to take. Today the airlines are finding another rich source of revenue by charging you up to $75 — in advance — to have the right to switch your flight or standby for a seat to open up the day you’re scheduled to depart.

It’s kind of like insurance, in case you need to switch to another flight. If you haven’t paid for this in advance, though, you might find the fees to change even higher. Unfortunately you can’t avoid these fees if you need to switch your flight or need to standby, but you can check airlines’ websites before booking to see which one has the lowest standby fee to keep your costs down.

Frequent flyer fees. These fees vary depending on your frequent flyer membership level. Most travelers who want to make a reservation using miles within 14 days of travel can expect an expedite fee. I find this fee really interesting, because the processing of the reservation and issuing of your ticket is essentially instantaneous. So, the expediting part of your transaction is purely rhetorical. Try to book your frequent flyer trips as far in advance as you can to avoid these fees.

There are also surcharges to use miles to most international destinations, although you generally pay these fees in more miles, unless you are booking too close to departure when the expedite fee kicks in. Lastly, if you cancel a frequent flyer ticket, it will cost you to have the airline redeposit the miles. I’ve paid as much as $150 to redeposit miles, and as far as I know travel insurance won’t cover this cost. Make sure you read the fine print in your membership or ask your booking agent about these fees before you use your frequent flyer miles.

International transaction fees. If you plan to spend a significant time abroad and use your credit card for purchases, it’s worth it to get a Capital One credit card. It’s the only credit card company that doesn’t charge fees for international transactions. Or you can use cash. ATM machines will give you cash in local currency using your own debit or credit card, and the exchange rates charged by your bank will be better than those charged by local banks to exchange your dollars to local currency.

Plus, ATM machines are in many destinations, even those considered off the beaten path. The convenience factor is worthy of consideration. With ATM machines ubiquitous, you don’t have to carry large amounts of cash while you’re on the move, which is great for avoiding petty theft or fear of petty theft.

Value added tax (VAT). Similar to a sales tax, a VAT is added on to your purchase in most foreign countries. For example, you decide to purchase a carpet in India. But the price you’re quoted will not include the 18 percent VAT tax, which will make the actual price you pay much higher. Many countries, such as India, reimburse travelers the VAT they have paid on purchases. All you have to do is ask the merchant to give you the right documentation to be able to collect the VAT back when you leave the country.

This documentation has to be prepared at the time of purchase, so be sure to ask for it and make sure it’s on an official receipt. Then, when you check in for your departure flight, find the VAT refund station in the airport, present your receipts, and you’ll get your refund in cash. Be sure to check the VAT rules for each country you visit. In some countries, you’ll need to actually show the merchandise, in addition to the receipt, in order to collect your refund. If your merchandise is already packed in your luggage, you can ask for a mail-in form that will be processed later, with the refund generally done via your credit card.

International car rental fees. All of the same fees and taxes that you’re used to paying to rent a car in the U.S. apply when renting a car internationally. The rates will differ by city, but be prepared to pay for insurance. In the U.S. all you need is a credit card to get insurance on a rental car. This doesn’t apply internationally. Insurance can add anywhere from $20 to $50 a day to your bill. Talk to your car insurance company before reserving a car internationally to see what they can do to help you find a low insurance rate.

Some of the coverage might already be included in your own car insurance. But don’t be surprised that CDW (collision damage waiver) insurance is obligatory in some destinations. Pay for it without feeling bad about the cost. If you damage a car abroad, you might be horrified to find out that the cost of repairs can be two or three times more than you might expect to pay here. And even if the local cost of the repair isn’t really higher, the car rental company will charge the much higher fees anyway.

Hotel parking fees. Parking fees are an additional business for many hotels. Before you use the hotel’s lot or garage, ask what the daily rate is so you know what to expect when you get your bill at the end of your stay. At smaller hotels in smaller cities, you can sometimes negotiate the parking fee in your room rate if you stay at the hotel regularly, for being a loyal customer. In some cases, the hotel will provide parking as part of the rate you pay, but this is the exception and not the rule.

Hotel telephone fees. Most people have a cell phone, but not all of those cell phones work internationally. If you’re out of the country and you need to make a call, you might have to use the phone in your hotel room. However, if you plan on using a calling card, the hotel won’t let you use it with the dial-out code. If you’re using a calling card, use it from a pay phone. If you absolutely have no choice but to use the hotel phone, make the call very short. The fees for international calls from your room can be astronomical.

Hotel mini bar fees. Some hotels now have an electronic monitor in the mini bar. If you move something, or take it out and then try to put it back, you are automatically charged — whether or not you opened the item. Hotels might also leave bottled water out for you in your room. Look for a note on the label that says whether the water is complimentary or will be billed to your room. If you’re not sure, ask the front desk before opening anything.

Hotel Internet fees. It’s not always clear if there is a charge for this service. Unlike U.S. hotels, most hotels abroad charge for Internet use, whether you use it in your room or at the hotel’s business center. If you need Internet access when traveling abroad, you can purchase your own data plan from a mobile provider and bring a global mobile broadband card to get access anywhere.

In some hotels, you might find free broadband in the lobby area, but even there, you should expect to pay for a plan that is charged by the half hour, the hour, or 24 hours. If you are staying in a hotel for an extended period (more than two nights), ask the front desk if there’s a special plan for the duration of your stay. Sometimes you’ll get a special rate for a three-day stay that turns out to be less than the best 24-hour rate times three.

As you’re packing bags for your getaway, I hope you find this list to be helpful. And remember to print out our shortened version of the list for you to take with you, and share with your friends and family. If there are any fees you think I should include in this list, leave them in a comment on this post.

(click to enlarge and print)

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Gary Arndt’s lessons to take with you on the road

A few months ago, we caught up with Gary Arndt, author of Everything Everywhere, in a podcast. We talked to him about how he quit his job, sold his house, and started traveling the world. For the last three years he’s been documenting his travels on Everything Everywhere, which was voted one of Time Magazine’s 25 Best Blogs of 2010.

The reason I’m bringing up Gary is that I stumbled upon a guest post he wrote on the The Blog of Tim Ferriss, called “20 Things I’ve Learned From Traveling Around the World for Three Years.” Everything he’s learned I can say I, too, have learned in my 30 plus years of traveling.

Not only that, but a few of his lessons are the very same ones I am constantly preaching, such as everyone should travel. Traveling exposes you to different cultures, but it also teaches you that despite where we come from, we’re not all so different from one another.

Gary also brings up an important point about the political protests we covered in detail when they occurred earlier in the year in Bangkok, Thailand. He was in Bangkok at the time of the protests, and he witnessed firsthand, that unless you were in the area where these protests were occurring, you would never know they were happening.

Bangkok is a sprawling city, and these protests were occurring in isolated areas. It broke my heart when tourism to this magnificent country suffered because of reports that led travelers to believe it was unsafe to go there. Fortunately, tourism to Thailand has been rebounding beautifully and all has returned to normal.

Jump over to the article to read more about what he’s learned on the road. I think a lot of travelers will be able to relate with what Gary says. And in case you missed the podcast with Gary the first time around you can still listen to it or read the transcript.

Is there anything you’ve learned from traveling that Gary doesn’t mention? Leave a comment on this post letting us know what it is.

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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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