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Archive for April, 2010

Friday’s Friendly Funny

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.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

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.

All fun and no crowds: Skip Rio and head to Olinda, Brazil for Carnaval!

Everyone’s heard of Carnaval in Brazil, just like everyone has heard of Mardi Gras in Louisiana. When you think of Mardi Gras, you think New Orleans. And when you think Carnaval, you think Rio.

Now I’m about to change how you think.

Carnaval just doesn’t happen in Rio. It happens all over Brazil, and there are many ways to participate. Many people say that a lesser-known city, Olinda, has one of the most traditional Carnaval observances. In addition, Olinda’s Carnaval doesn’t have the overwhelming crowds, which gets you closer to this Brazilian experience.

These points were recently driven home to me by our webmaster, Cameron Clark and his equally talented photographer girlfriend, Amy Steinfeld, who went there this February. It was his first Carnaval. He flew into Saõ Paulo, and traveled to Olinda, Recife, Trancoso, and back to Saõ Paulo in 10 days. Four out of the 10 days were spent celebrating in the streets of Olinda. Cameron captured some amazing photos that I’m about to share with you here.

In his slideshow (below), he gives us some background on his trip, including a bit of the history of the frevo. The soundtrack to the slideshow is a recording of the frevo, which originated in Olinda. Grab a cold drink (trust me, you’ll want one) and start the show. You’ll be transported to the rosy pink colonial homes and sun-kissed beaches of Brazil.

CARNAVAL: Olinda, Brazil

We don’t have a tour to Olinda (at least not yet). But that’s no reason not to share this fabulous destination and Cameron’s experiences with you. After you’re done watching the slideshow, if you find yourself interested in a South American experience, we do have the Patagonian Explorer — one of my personal favorites — Incredible Argentina, Exotic Ecuador, and three other tours to choose from. Meanwhile, enjoy Carnaval!

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Vietnam is Anthony Bourdain’s favorite place on Earth to eat

MAIN COURSE: Vietnamese elephant fish

Last week on the Travel Channel’sAnthony Bourdain No Reservations,” Tony traveled to his favorite place in the world to eat, Vietnam. Tony’s got good taste. It’s one my favorite places to go to for the food. Last year on my trip to Vietnam, I happily ate my way through the country.

Like me, Anthony had plenty of good things to say about the food in Vietnam. For starters, you can sample the amazing cuisine of this beautiful country, and not spend a fortune. Whether you choose a restaurant, a sidewalk restaurant, or a market food stall, it’s consistently delicious, aesthetically presented, and quite affordable.

I told you about the succulent five-course lunch I enjoyed at a remote Mekong Delta restaurant.The entire meal, including delicious appetizers, main course, and dessert was prepared for 19 guests on four little burners in a sliver of a kitchen that lacked most modern-day appliances. And like my other meals in Vietnam, it was not only palate pleasing, it was beautifully presented in the Vietnamese way: simple ingredients, artistic arrangement, appetizing, and delicious.

One of my favorite foods, and one of the prettiest, is the Vietnamese spring roll. These spring rolls are created with a thin, flat rice pancake filled with a variety of ingredients. They usually include perfectly cooked shrimp, which are placed in the center, fragrant fresh basil or parsley, a sliver of cucumber or another vegetable, and a fresh scallion.

The pancake is carefully rolled, with the ends tucked in, to hold the contents in place. The scallion’s green end protrudes from one end of the roll like a tail, to be eaten with the last bite of the roll. The roll is then dipped into a delicate, mildly spicy fish sauce garnished with a few paper-thin slices of chili pepper. Ordinarily, a fish sauce would make me say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Not in Vietnam. The fish sauce adds to the medley of delicate flavor, and the result is simply sumptuous.

What makes Vietnamese food even better is that it is very healthy and extremely low in fat. I came home having lost five pounds, despite eating at every opportunity. It consists of fish and meat in small quantities, plenty of vegetables, and fruit galore. And, while we here in the West love our freezers and microwave ovens, in Vietnam everything is fresh, fresh, fresh!

In the restaurants you’ll find the chef going to the market to buy herbs, spices, vegetables, and fruits two, even three times a day. Herbs that were bought early in the morning are no longer considered fresh by 11 a.m. I have no doubt that the freshness of the ingredients adds to the amazing taste of the food.

One of my favorite spots to visit whenever I travel is a local market. I love to see the types of foods consumed by the locals, and I enjoy tasting when conditions permit. In Vietnam, a visit to a local market is an amazing treat.

First, they are incredibly clean, despite the fish, poultry, and meats on display. Then there are the colorful pyramids of exotic fruits, vegetables, and herbs. They say that anything you stick in the ground in Vietnam will grow, and a visit to a local market will prove the point.

Finally, you’ll discover that you can easily taste your way through the country by visiting these markets. Just stop for a snack or a meal at the small stalls, where vendors prepare some of the most delicious treats you can imagine.

There’s so much food to savor in Vietnam, and I’m not surprised at all that Tony Bourdain selected it as his favorite country for eating. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who is interested in a true cultural experience coupled with a gourmet holiday will be delighted by a visit to Vietnam.

If you get a chance, see what Tony’s experience was like. And if you want to taste some Vietnamese food, you can always book Friendly Planet’s Taste of Vietnam or Best of Vietnam tours.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Friday’s Friendly Funny