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Friendly Planet Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Advice’

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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.

Four steps to choosing the travel package that’s right for you

You know how everyone always writes in their travel ads to book now, because space is limited? Well, sometimes it’s actually the truth, especially when the space is for an awesome holiday travel deal that features gorgeous destinations and incredibly low prices. Even though we released our two December holiday deals just last week, they are already sold out.

To be perfectly truthful, there were some in the office who said it was too late to offer our special December holiday cruises in October. After all, that would leave only about four weeks to fill our allotments before having to release our blocked space. How wrong they were.

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We released our Mediterranean Highlights and Iberian Coasts cruises on Wednesday, Oct. 7, and as of this morning, both the Dec. 18 Mediterranean Highlights cruise and the Dec. 26 Iberian Coasts cruise are sold out. It isn’t really surprising to me, though.

So, while the December space is no longer available, departures later in 2010 still have plenty of space, including a Feb. 11-22, 2010 sailing of Iberian Coasts, which starts at just $1,399 including airfare, transfers, an eight-night cruise, and two bonus nights in Rome. Dare we say, book now, because space is limited?

But what if you can’t decide which cruise is right for you? They both sail through the Mediterranean Sea. They both stop at ports of call in some of the most beautiful coastal towns. And they both pamper vacationers with all the luxuries of the M/V Louis Majesty. How do you compare vacation packages that seem similar but have different prices?

People always ask me how to best make price comparisons of various vacation offerings. Sometimes, the trips seem identical, and yet the prices are vastly different. What can a traveler do to properly compare two or more trips, and determine which one offers the best value for the money?

Too often, I see travelers simply comparing the number of days of travel and the selling price. But these two details – while important – are very far from telling the real story of how one trip differs from another, and which is the one you should book for yourself.

I’ve put together four surefire steps that guarantee you’ll always be able to tell which package is the best deal.

1. Make a list of package features and line the list up feature by feature. Check items such as included flights, transfers, hotel nights, included meals, included touring, and hotels. Typically, the price differential has to do with any one, or a combination of these features. For example, Friendly Planet Travel usually includes all transfers if possible, while our competitors frequently do not. Sometimes, companies include no transfers at all, which could easily add a hefty sum of money to your trip’s bottom line.

Hotels can also make a big difference in the price of a tour, so be sure check the hotels by name. If the hotels listed for each tour differ, visit a site like TripAdvisor.com to see if you can ascertain differences in the service. Our hotels are always well-located. Hotels that are situated far from the action are typically less expensive than those with better locations, for obvious reasons. FP_vacancy.jpg

On TripAdvisor, you can see rates of hotels, and while you might not be paying those precise rates as part of your tour, you’ll certainly be able to figure out that one tour, using Hotel A, costs less than another tour, using Hotel B. If you see that Hotel A is selling on TripAdvisor for $50 per night, and Hotel B is selling for $200 per night, you can conclude that the cheaper tour is using cheaper hotels. And if those cheaper hotels are upgradable for a price, don’t forget to calculate the cost of the upgrade into your comparison. A tour that starts out hundreds less than the competition can end up being hundreds more, just by upgrading to an acceptable hotel.

Tours included in the vacation package can also make a big difference in a tour price. For example, a typical "trick" in pricing for tours with river cruises, such as the Nile or Yangtze River, is to sell the shore excursions as optionals. So, while the basic tour price includes the cabin and meals, the tours — the reason you are taking the cruise in the first place — are excluded from the price. These excluded shore excursions can add hundreds of dollars to the tour price, too. Be sure that the tours in your comparison group all have the same amount of included tours and shore excursions, and add the cost of these excursions where needed to get a realistic price comparison.

2. Call the company selling each tour and ask questions. How many people typically are included on a departure? If the group fails to reach the minimum number required for the tour to operate, when will the company advise those already booked, and what options does the tour company offer the travelers? If you find that the agents who man the phones are too busy to talk to you, look elsewhere. If you’re planning a tour, you’ll need to ask questions and service provided is the No. 1 value-added component. No service, no sale, is how you should view it.

3. Are you being charged extra for credit card payments? This is different from getting a reduction for cash payments or early bookings. Some companies advertise extra-low prices and then add fees for using a credit card. Your credit card payment provides a layer of protection to you as a consumer. You can decide later if you wish to take advantage of a cash discount if the agent is someone you know and trust, but if the advertised price requires you to pay by check or else pay a surcharge for your credit card payment, look elsewhere.

4. Ask for references. Any good company that operates ethically will have plenty of previous travelers who are willing to provide references and talk to (or e-mail) prospective passengers about the tours. If you are greeted with an incredulous "we don’t provide references" reply, look elsewhere. It’s your right to know that others who have worked with the company can attest to their service and the quality of their tours. And any company in business to sell travel should be delighted to share those references with potential future travelers. It’s actually part of the service you deserve to receive.

Five things that should never be inside your carry on bag

FP_CarryOn2.jpgI know how important a well-packed carry on bag is to a traveler. In fact, I’ve seen situations where it’s been a life line, especially in cases where checked luggage has been misplaced. That’s why I gave you my top five things that should always be packed in your carry on bag last week.

But, as I said in my Examiner.com post today, when packing for a trip, what you leave out of your bag is just as important as what you put in it. Don’t waste space with unnecessary items, and always keep airport security standards in mind. If you haven’t flown in a while, I’d suggest reviewing some of the rules and regulations on the TSA Web site to help you decide what to pack and what to pass over.

And for a quick list of tips, check out my post, where I give you my list of five things that should never be inside your carry on bag.

The five most important things to pack in your carry on bag

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Everyone has their own packing preferences. Clothes folded or rolled, shoes on top or on the bottom, duffel bag or rolling suit case. But no matter how you prefer to pack your bags, there are certain contents that should be inside them, no matter what.

If you travel often (especially internationally), you know a properly packed carry on bag can make a big difference that could have lasting effects on your entire trip. On the Examiner today, I put together my list of five things that should always be inside your carry on bag. Head on over and have a look!  

How to choose the right travel guide for your trip

One of the best ways to prepare for a trip to somewhere you’ve never been is to do some research and pick up a travel guide on your destination. A good travel book will give you the inside scoop on things a regular tourist probably wouldn’t know. Like where to get the perfect stew in Dublin, or what to wear dancing in Barcelona, or even how to find a room for under $30 in Auckland.

There’s a ton of choices when it comes to choosing a reputable travel guide, and with aisles of options staring you in the face at your local bookstore, that could be a little overwhelming. But on the Examiner.com today, I gave my two cents on how to select a guide that’s right for you. So mosey on over to the Examiner and check it out!

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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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