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Recapping Friendly Planet Travel’s first live Facebook travel chat

CHAT AWAY: I was happy to answer your travel questions
during our first live Facebook chat!

Having traveled both professionally and personally for over 30 years, I am often used as a resource for a wealth of travel questions. So you might have seen that we held our first-ever live chat on Friendly Planet Travel’s Facebook page. I answered many of our fans’ travel questions in real-time, and had a great time doing so. I wanted to share some of the biggest takeaways with those who missed it.

Q: What are the benefits of booking with a travel agency versus booking on my own?

A: The benefits are various, but mainly, you’ll save money. We spend a lot of time getting great deals for our passengers and we pass those on to you. Also, you’re getting plenty of expertise. All that research you’ll need to do, we’ve already done it.

Q: Out of all the cruises you’ve taken, which is your favorite and why? 

A: Honestly, the very best cruise I have ever taken was on a small ship, part of the Cruceros Australis fleet, in Patagonia. I loved this cruise because it was an amazing adventure, not just fancy food each day — we visited some of the most pristine places in our hemisphere. Also, the size of the cruise was very conducive to making new friends.

Q: Do you save any money planning a trip far in advance? 

A: It doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, especially with airlines and cruises, the best rates are not always available far in advance. However, with tour companies like ours, if we see opportunities to reduce cost, we always pass along the benefits, even at the last minute. The main reason to book early is to be sure you get the trip you want. If you wait, you might not get the space at all.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for traveling abroad, specifically to Ireland? 

A: If you are traveling on your own, perhaps with a rental car and some basic hotel arrangements, you’ll want to check in with the Irish Tourist Board. It has a tremendous amount of information, plus plenty of recommendations for restaurants, pubs, and fun events, many of which are completely for free. Since there isn’t a language problem, you’ll meet plenty of warm and friendly people among the Irish who will share their personal favorites regardless of where you travel. Ireland is one the most accessible destinations for Americans.

Q: What would you recommend for a good girls’ getaway trip, one with lots of sightseeing but also some relaxation? 

A: Go to Tuscany. It’s amazingly rich in touring opportunities; it’s gorgeous, friendly, with great food and plenty of opportunities to relax.

Q: Is it safe to travel to Greece right now? 

A: You bet it’s safe. There is no problem with safety in Greece today. Not a bit. The Greeks have their issues with their economy. Tourist are not only safe, they are major personas MUY GRATAS. The Greeks will treat guests like royalty, and there is no reason at all not to consider visiting Greece this summer.

Q: When is it best to exchange dollar for Euros? 

A: Never exchange money in the U.S. before taking a trip abroad. Your best exchange rate will be in the country you’re visiting. You can exchange some money when you arrive, usually right in the airport. That will get you started with local currency for tips or small purchases. Then you can check the local exchange places you’ll find everywhere or at the banks. You should check Travel.State.gov for information regarding specifics of customs, health requirements, alerts, and lots of other information. The site is for U.S. travelers, and it is very helpful.

I want to thank everyone who participated in our first of many live travel chats. If you missed it, we are holding our next chat on Sept. 7 at 1 p.m. EST. Join in and ask me your biggest travel questions. Just remember, it’s better to know before you go!

Medical tourism: Traveling to go under the knife

How far would you go to cut through the red tape, high prices, and long waits to have the surgery you need or want? Many people are traveling farther from home and venturing to other countries — it’s even become part of the tourism industry.

Medical tourism is the practice of traveling across international borders to obtain some type of health care. It’s most commonly used for elective procedures, such as cosmetic surgery, or complex specialized operations, such as cardiac surgery or joint replacement.

The process for having a medical procedure abroad starts with finding a medical tourism provider and presenting them with a medical report, which includes a full health history and a local doctor’s diagnosis. Next, the patient has a consultation with the medical tourism provider’s certified doctor. They’ll discuss where the procedure will take place, the duration of the stay needed, and the approximate expenditure.

After that, the patient signs consent forms and applies for a medical visa for the country where the procedure will take place. Once in country, the medical tourism provider assigns the patient a case executive, who is responsible for overseeing treatment and care.

The medical tourism trend is on the rise, and while I’m by no means a medical expert, I wanted to share my insight about how this trend is impacting the travel industry.

Why are patients turning to medical tourism? Long wait times and high health care costs in first-world countries are among the reasons cited. Compared to the United States or Western Europe, the cost of surgery in places like India and Thailand can be one-tenth the price, with hospital stays and rehabilitation included.

The biggest concern with medical tourism is that the level of care and accreditation varies greatly across the globe. Because of the rapid growth of the industry, little has been done to ensure that health care tourism providers maintain a high level of care and meet safety standards. For example, you might run into health care providers oversees who practice outside of their area of expertise, or utilize student volunteers and trainees in place of licensed medical professionals.

Another factor to consider is if something goes wrong abroad, it might not be covered by insurance. Medical malpractice litigation doesn’t protect patients in many foreign countries as it does in the states, so patients can be left with tricky legal issues. Additionally, if a patient is actually awarded malpractice financial damages, there is the chance that the doctor or hospital will not have appropriate insurance and are therefore unable to pay the compensation.

Ethical issues have also plagued the medical tourism industry, such as the illegal purchasing of organs and tissues, and the growing concern that the quality of care for local patients will decline as local doctors focus efforts on foreigners.

Despite the risks, medical tourism is growing, and is set to become a $100 billion industry this year. If you’re considering medical tourism, the first and most important step is to be informed. Learn all you can about the country to which you’ll travel, its laws, and the medical facility where your procedure will take place. Be sure the facility and doctor you choose is accredited according to U.S. standards. You’re your best advocate, so make sure to be an informed medical tourist.

Would you ever travel internationally for a medical procedure? Should the industry be regulated or left to the patient’s discretion? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments section.

4 destinations to visit in summer 2012

It’s hard to believe that summer is right around the corner. With Memorial Day weekend fast approaching, I started thinking about the best summer destinations to visit in 2012. Here are my thoughts:

Kenya: See the abundance of spectacular wildlife and lavishly gorgeous, incredibly photogenic landscapesKenya. Although June through September is the rainy season, the great migration of animals that cross the Serengeti occurs during this time, making it well worth the trip. Travelers will be amazed to see the plethora of wildlife as the animals take part in their annual search for water and a mate. Think of it as the best safari ever, unfolding right before your eyes.


Ireland: Enjoy the emerald green countrysideIreland. Pleasant weather during the summer allows travelers to enjoy the lush, green scenery that this country is known for. The friendly, outgoing Irish people will make you feel right at home, and travelers will have more chances to take in all of the attractions, as they have the longest operating hours during the summer.


Greece: Explore the ancient secrets of the Greek islands and bask on the sun-splashed Mediterranean beachesGreek Islands. This summer is a great time to visit, as travelers can take advantage of the many bargains being offered to attract tourists. Although Greece is experiencing unrest and a problematic economy, the exquisiteness and charm of the most beautiful islands that exist anywhere in the world remains unchanged.


Italy: Experience the art, fashion, and music that flourish in the citiesItaly. Though a great year-round destination, some places are better visited in the summer. Tuscany is lavishly fertile, with vineyards and olive groves as far as the eye can see, delectably fresh food, and magnificently endless panoramas and rolling hills. Venice and Florence are also great to visit in the summer, thanks to many outdoor performances and festivals. The Amalfi Coast and Sorrento, aka the Sunbelt of Italy, is home to some of the most beautiful towns, dramatic coastlines, and stunning panoramas in Europe, and should not be missed. There’s also nothing like enjoying a summer evening outside at one of the countless restaurants with a delicious Italian meal, glass of wine, and good friends.


If you’re interested in booking a trip to one of these destinations, or would like to speak with a member of our reservations team about other fantastic summer getaways, you can reach us at 800-555-5765.

Where are you traveling this summer? Let me know your top choices in a comment!

How much responsibilty should you take for your vacation?

For those who might have missed Chris Elliott’s latest article this past Sunday (I caught it in the Philadelphia Inquirer), I wanted to share it with you here today.

In the article, a traveler wrote to Chris for help because a hotel refused to honor a price they had mistakenly printed as a keystroke error. The hotel manager still gave the traveler a significantly discounted rate, and waived other associated fees with staying at the hotel, such as the mandatory valet parking fee. Still, this traveler was adamant that the original price be honored.

Clearly, this traveler expected Chris — the champion of travelers’ rights — to side with him. And here’s where some readers might have been surprised. Chris did not believe a hotel should be forced to honor a price that was printed in error, if the price was obviously too good to be true — such as a $28 night at the Westin.

The point that Chris drove home in his article is that just as vendors have a responsibility to travelers, we as travelers also have responsibilities as consumers. We’re all human, we all make mistakes, and we all need to have understanding.

In my own opinion, that traveler was being unnecessarily demanding, especially considering the many ways the hotel tried to make it up to him. So I greatly appreciated Chris response. This leads me to the subject I wanted to write about today: What happens when something goes wrong on your trip?

What happens if a weather delay grounds you in an airport in the middle of a vacation, when you’re supposed to be en route to a new city? We had to deal with this exact situation this past week on one of our Taste of China tours.

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A heavy fog prevented a plane of Friendly Planet Travel passengers from landing at the destination city of Shanghai. Instead, the plane landed at the next nearest airport. The problem was, people had signed up for a tour, and this was not part of the plan!

The Friendly Planet Travel operator — who wants very much to accommodate the group the best way possible — turns himself into a pretzel to find an alternative way to get 34 to Shanghai as quickly as possible. He finds a way — at a minimal cost —  and ultimately saves the day. But wait. These new arrangements — everything from new tickets to accommodations — will now cost our travelers an additional $157.50 out of pocket.

Some of our passengers were NOT happy. I spent the entire afternoon fielding complaints from livid customers who had not been told they would have to pay this extra amount. And immediately Chris Elliott’s latest article was called to mind. What should you expect when you travel? What should a responsible person be thinking about? How should you really prepare for a trip? Are there times when you have to know that things can go wrong?

There’s a situation known as force majeure: situations that no one can control (such as bad weather). You can’t, as a travel dealer, create a fantastic deal that includes a great trip, wonderful arrangements, all for an incredibly good price, and still have the buffers to cover $157.50 for 34 people.

So I wrote a letter to everyone on the trip, explained what had happened, and apologized that they hadn’t been told about the cost. I asked them if they would be willing to pay this extra cost, so that our China rep wouldn’t be liable for this money himself.

Out of 34 people, 23 immediately paid the $157.50, and the there were another few that said they would pay later. The remaining members were still angry. In situations such as this, most people are very understanding, but there is truly something to be said about having some responsibility for the way life sometimes works. As I said, force majeure — when something is no one’s fault.

My takeaway: When you prepare for a trip, don’t forget to mentally prepare yourself for situations that can arise when you’re away from home. Friendly Planet Travel promises to take care of you when you travel with us, but we still ask that you understand that in situations beyond our control, we sometimes need a little wiggle room from you.

We will always make the decision that we feel is right for you, no matter that. That said, every traveler needs to make the decision to travel responsibly. And as every experienced traveler knows, life happens. (And sometimes, life makes for the best stories ;) )

Ask the expert

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I started this blog because I wanted it to be a portal of information for globe trotters, vacation planners, and citizens of the world with a passion for travel. And I think we’ve covered a lot of great tips and topics, such as how to pack your bags for an eight-day trip, the five most important things to pack in your carry on bag, how to shop for the best travel bargain, five tips for avoiding passport hassles, cash, credit, or travelers checks: the scoop on money abroad, and much more.

But one of my goals is to make this Friendly Planet Travel blog not only a source of information for you, but an interactive community. As such, I want to invite everyone and anyone to write to me! What are your travel questions? What topics would you love to see as blog posts? And what are you dying to know about Friendly Planet?

I’ve been around the globe more than a few times myself, and I’ve picked up quite a few tricks along the way. And the best way for me to share it with you, is for you to ask. So … ask away!

Don’t let your wallet get swiped abroad!

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Perhaps one of the worst ways to have a perfectly wonderful vacation go to ruin is to lose your wallet, or worse, have it stolen, especially while you’re traveling abroad. You feel helpless, sick to your stomach, and fearful, because everything you need to transact even the most basic functions of daily life are contained in that little piece of leather and plastic. All doesn’t have to be lost, though, if you keep three basic, easy-to-remember rules in mind as you travel.

1. Don’t carry your wallet. That’s the simplest and best way to avoid the problem of a lost or stolen wallet. Have I lost my mind, telling you not to carry your wallet? What about the money, the credit cards, the ID? You don’t need a wallet for any of these things. I  always put some cash, one credit card, and my driver’s license in a small "purse" that I’ve bought expressly for travel. This purse is small enough to strap to my leg (under my slacks) if I’m not carrying a purse, and has a little pouch for change. But you don’t need anything fancier than a small plastic zip lock bag, which will easily do the job just as well.

2. Call the police. If you are carrying the wallet (despite my best advice) and it’s been stolen, call the police right away. Even if the police can’t recover your wallet, you will need the police report to make an insurance claim. And sometimes, the police even recover your wallet for you, in which case you can lock it into your hotel room safe for the rest of your stay. Even if you’ve lost your wallet, you should report it to the local police. A lost wallet can often turn up (without cash, most likely) but with ID and other important items still inside. Filing a police report will increase your chances of ever getting the wallet back into your hands safely. Otherwise, no one will have a clue how to contact you as you travel.

3. Keep change, receipts, business cards, etc. in your wallet tucked inside the hotel room safe.
If you really want to be able to avoid having that wallet with you as you travel, you’ll have to get used to getting rid of all those collectables you acquire during the day. Chuck the small change, cards, notes, receipts, and other odds and ends that make your normally feather-light wallet feel like a cannonball. These should go into the wallet and be left inside the room safe, unless you absolutely must have the item with you. If you need an item you’ve stored in your locked wallet, take it out, put it into your baggie or purse, but don’t take the wallet out of the safe. Regarding small change, in most currencies, it’s not worth much in terms of buying power. And if you leave what you collect in your hotel room when you check out, your maid will appreciate the tip.
 

Airline fuel surchages: We feel your pain

As Arthur Frommer pointed out in a blog post last week, the airline fuel surcharge is back. But is anyone really surprised? I’m certainly not, especially considering the rising cost of oil (now close to $80 a barrel) and the financial mess surrounding just about every major airline.

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Frommer points out that the airlines haven’t given any public notice about the fuel surcharges. He regularly conducts test bookings, and hadn’t noticed anything until a friend told him about an increase due to fuel on a ticket to London.

The issue of surcharges for fuel is a hot one around the Friendly Planet Travel office. We’re constantly trying to figure out how to deal with these charges, particularly since the government has made it our responsibility (as the issuer of the tickets) to collect the surcharges from you, the travelers, whenever they are levied.

This is a very messy and unfortunate position in which to find ourselves. At our company, we take a lot of pride and satisfaction in creating high-value-for-your-money vacations, and anyone who has seen our Web site can attest to the fact that they are paragons of full disclosure.

If it’s a cost, it’s disclosed on the tour’s Web page. All but the fuel surcharges, that is. Oh, they are definitely included in tour prices when we create a tour and cost it, but that doesn’t mean those charges are stable and won’t go up.

As fastidious as we are about full disclosure and great pricing, you can imagine our chagrin when an airline sends us an e-mail to announce that a fuel surcharge is in the works. Sometimes the announcement comes retroactively, and the only thing we can do is send that dreaded notice that the airlines have already raised fuel and that’s that.

Sometimes we get a few days of grace in order to send frantic messages to our travelers to let them know they can avoid the increases by paying for their tickets immediately so that we can issue them. But the grace period is always short, and imagine those unhappy travelers who have full mailboxes, or who don’t check their messages each day, or who might be on an African safari and are out of touch. They don’t have any recourse.

And the fuel surcharge increases can be significant – usually around $100 or more per ticket. If you’re a family of four, that could add up to a big chunk of your vacation spending money.

I’m not even going to start on the subject of what these fuel surcharges mean to us. If we do get a grace period, the entire office goes into a frenzy of extra work to contact everyone, collect and process payments, and issue tickets.

And for the record, we don’t get a penny of that fuel surcharge increase for our efforts, either. It’s just our job to do this mountain of extra work, for which we not only receive no compensation, but get unhappy travelers, who usually can’t believe it isn’t somehow our fault.

While we have absolutely no way to avoid the surcharges when they occur, there are a few strategies that help to manage them.

  • If you pay for your ticket at the time you book your tour, you are able to guarantee the cost of the ticket at the moment. If fuel goes up, you’re protected. If fuel goes down, well, you might have overpaid. But honestly, fuel goes up way more often than it goes down, so the odds are in your favor if you do opt to pay for your ticket when you book your tour.
  • You can make a mental note that the cost of your trip could go up by another $100 to $200 per person, and budget for this at the outset. If the fuel increases, and you’re not willing to buy your ticket way in advance, you accept the higher cost, but aren’t blown away by the expense because you’ve taken it into consideration. If your budget for the trip doesn’t allow the possibility for an extra fee for fuel, you probably should not book the trip. You’ll do yourself a favor if you save up more money for your vacation until you can afford the extra cost.

The way it’s going these days, fuel surcharge increases are coming in waves, and if you’re traveling anywhere by air in the coming months, you’ll likely see the impact in the cost of your ticket. Whether you pay for your ticket in advance to avoid potential fuel surcharges or you budget for extra cost so you don’t let it ruin your vacation, please don’t blame us for it. We’re as blameless as you are. Honest. ;)
 

If you would like to comment on fuel surcharges, how pricing is done on travel, or if you have any ideas for managing these increases in the cost of fuel, please leave a comment, or send an email to me at pmgoldman@friendlyplanet.com.

Cash, traveler’s checks, or credit? What’s the scoop on money when you travel?

FP_Creditcard.jpgIn today’s world, it’s hardly ever worth it to carry traveler’s checks. You can find ATM machines in many destinations, even those considered "off the beaten track" where you can get cash, in local currency, using your own credit or debit card.

Typically, the exchange rates charged by your credit card company or bank will be better than those charged by local banks, and the convenience goes without saying. You get money as you need it, without having to carry around lots of bills, and without having to pay commissions and fees to cash the traveler’s checks.

If you simply can’t imagine taking a trip abroad without traveler’s checks, by all means get the ones that are free. If you belong to AAA, or your bank offers free traveler’s checks to their depositors, get them. But make sure you get them in small denominations. Typically, you pay fees based on the amount you’re changing. If you’re like me, you’ll bring them home with you again to redeposit into your own checking account. That is, of course, if you have anything left!

When I travel abroad, I usually bring about $300 in cash so I can quickly convert some dollars to local currency on arrival. That gives me time to find out where the ATM machines are located, without having to stress about not having money in local currency.

I also carry enough $1 bills to take care of incidental tipping, too. Having $20 to $30 in single dollars buys me time to figure out what a good tip should be in local currency (and I can assure you that tips paid in dollars won’t be refused).

I use the hotel in-room safe to store extra cash, so I don’t need to walk around carrying a bundle of bills in my purse. I also take two different credit cards with ATM capabilities, but I only carry one at a time. I leave the second card tucked away in the room safe. If I ever lose my purse or if it gets stolen, I have another card on hand.

And remember, before you even depart the U.S., it’s a good idea to call your card companies and bank to let them know when and where you’re going. The last thing you want is to have your bank account frozen while you’re abroad.

I always call my card company before leaving for any trip. The trip details go into my credit card file. If you’ve ever been in another country, tried to make a purchase, and had your card declined, you know why the preemptive call is important. In today’s security-conscious world, where identity and card theft is rampant, cards are often declined because the charge doesn’t fit a normal profile. If your credit card profile is annotated with your travel details, you’ll never face this embarrassing inconvenience.
 

Five tips for avoiding passport hassles

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You can’t travel abroad without a valid passport. Everyone knows this, and everyone planning a trip can find out how to easily get a passport issued. But that’s not the end of the story. Here are five important tips for avoiding passport hassles that can ruin even the best planned vacation.

1. Make a photocopy of the signature and photo pages of your passport to carry with you as you travel. Keep it in a safe place, but keep it in a separate compartment or bag from your actual passport. If your passport gets lost or stolen, that photocopy will be helpful in getting a replacement.

2. Check the passport to be sure it is valid for at least 180 days AFTER your return date from your trip. Most destinations have rules about passport validity, so don’t assume that because your passport is valid when you depart, it’ll be sufficiently valid for your return. For example, if you’re going to India on Nov. 1 and returning Nov. 15, your passport should be valid though May 15, 2010. If it’s set to expire before May 15, 2010, get the passport renewed before you travel.

3. If you’re planning to visit a destination that requires a visa, and you need to get your passport renewed for this trip, do the renewal BEFORE you apply for your visa. The visa will be stamped into your passport, so if you get the visa first, you’ll have to apply (and pay for) the same visa all over again when you get your new passport.

4. Check to be sure you have enough visa pages in your valid passport, as many destinations require a certain number of blank visa pages for you to be able to enter the country. This is different from getting a visa in advance. In this case, the visa is stamped into your passport at passport control upon your arrival. Sometimes it’s free and sometimes you have to pay a fee. But regardless of cost, the pages need to be available. Typically, If you are short on visa pages, you won’t be able to board your flight in the first place, and that means plenty of disappointment all around, not to mention plenty of lost money trying to catch up to your tour or paying penalties to change flights, etc.

5. Unless you’re traveling daily from one city to another, use the in-room safe or the hotel’s safe deposit system, and store your passport together with your other valuables. In some countries, it’s virtually impossible to easily replace your travel documents, and in most places, you won’t need to carry your passport with you all the time. For identification, consider carrying your driver’s license or other small document that identifies you. Even a driver’s license will be replaced more easily than a passport. And unless you plan to do extensive banking transactions or purchase very expensive items which qualify for VAT reimbursement, you will hardly ever need your passport as you travel, except to cross borders from one country to another or to board your flights.
 

Jennifer Michaels talks food, safety, and fun on family vacations

Some parents are a tad overwhelmed at the thought of traveling with their baby or young children. Others can’t wait to strap on the baby carrier and go, go, go. No matter which style of traveling you prefer, sooner or later, chances are, you’re going to be navigating an airport, highway, or foreign destination with your kids in tow. And according to family travel and mamma maven Jennifer Michaels, the best way to do travel with kids, is to do it prepared.

Jennifer is the woman behind Family Travel Planet, and the Family Travel Examiner column. She’s also a former television producer and Family Travel Expert for VisitFlorida.com. If anyone knows the inside scoop for saving money and keeping kids (and, let’s face it, that means everyone) happy while traveling, it’s Jennifer.

As you know, Friendly Planet Travel is currently offering some pretty incredible prices on the Mediterranean Highlights and Iberian Coast cruises, with the opportunity for up to two children to travel for free (just pay for airfare, taxes, and port fees).  So what better time to stock up on tips and tricks for traveling with kids? I recently had the chance to talk to Jennifer, and know that everyone could benefit from her family travel experiences.

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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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