Travel Notices

Archive for December, 2010

Friday’s Friendly Funny

What’s to come at Friendly Planet Travel in 2011

One of my favorite times of the year is the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It’s the perfect time to take a few days off to relax from the hustle and bustle of work and spend quality time with family and friends. It’s also a fitting time to reflect on what we’ve accomplished in the past year, and what we’re hoping to achieve in the next year.

2011 will be a momentous year for Friendly Planet Travel. It marks our 30th year in business! Back in 1981, I never thought about where I would end up in 30 years. Now, three decades later, I’m still here. I feel so lucky to have what to me feels like the best job in the world.

Throughout the year I’ll be sharing stories of why I started Friendly Planet Travel, and about our first group tour, which included my first group tour to Israel for the first gathering of Holocaust survivors in Israel. I’ll also be interviewing the travelers who have been booking tours with Friendly Planet Travel since the beginning, and much more.

In addition to celebrating our 30th anniversary throughout the year, we’ll be introducing new products and new ways of giving back to many of the countries that welcome our tours. Here’s a sneak peek at what to expect from Friendly Planet Travel in 2011.

New destinations. We surveyed Friendly Planet Travelers to discover the location they want to travel to most. The winner was Madagascar. And 2011 will be the year you can visit this fascinating destination with Friendly Planet Travel. We’re also introducing tours to Spain and Portugal, Burma (Myanmar), and Botswana.

New tours. As part of our 30th anniversary celebration, I will be leading a select group of tours to the new destinations being introduced in 2011. I’ll get to put my first-hand experience and research of these new locales to use when I extend invitations to these four tours later this year.

New booking engine. We will be unveiling a new air-hotel-car booking engine for travelers who want to create their own vacations without worrying about set departures or prepared itineraries. This consumer- and service-oriented portal is for savvy travelers who know what they want in services, including great pricing, but don’t want to give up service to get it.

New cruises. We will also be adding a robust, new series of cruise selections, featuring such highly regarded cruise brands as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), and Asamara. All will be available for individuals who want to travel independently, as well as set departure programs that include lots of additional services.

New nonprofit foundation. When I created Friendly Planet Travel, outreach and support for humanitarian causes was always part of my mission. We contribute directly to projects in many of the countries we visit, as well as right here in America. As part of our 30th anniversary celebration, I’m fulfilling my original mission with the creation of the Friendly Planet Travel Foundation. All the outreach and support that we conduct will move to our foundation, and we’ll be offering you plenty of new opportunities to get involved in helping as you vacation.

Continuous improvements to our digital ecosystem. You might have noticed some changes to the Friendly Planet Travel website in 2010. It’ll continue to evolve as we include more enhancements to the website and booking engine.

There’s plenty more to come in the new year, but I hope that in the meantime, these tidbits of news will tickle your curiosity and bring you back to the blog for more details. Come back and visit the blog soon to see what else we have in the works in 2011.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

Why it’s important to buy travel insurance, part one

Travel insurance is something you buy hoping you never have to use it. However, not everyone purchases it when booking a vacation — a big mistake in my book. I’ve told you how travel insurance covers medical expenses and the steps to take to use your insurance, but it also covers a lot of other events you might not have expected.

With an estimated 43.6 million people traveling by air this winter holiday period, I’m sure some of your trips might not go as planned. When something does go wrong and you have to foot the bill, you’ll either sigh with relief that you bought travel insurance or kick yourself that you won’t be reimbursed for any of the additional expenses.

In this new series, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about travel insurance. Why a whole series instead of one post, you might ask? Honestly, there is a lot to cover.

While it might not be the most fascinating part of planning your trip, it’s vital for success that you have all the facts! Believe me, I’ve used my own travel insurance before, and you’ll say “Really?” when you find out what’s covered. From trip interruptions, to lost prescriptions, to lost luggage, the list goes on and on.

Since skies will be busy this season, let’s start with what travel insurance covers around your trip to the airport. As an example, here is Friendly Planet Travel’s policy to give you an idea of what travel insurance can cover.

Trip delay. If you’re stranded in an airport because of weather, mechanical problems, or you got in an accident on the way to the airport, etc., your travel insurance will cover you for costs associated with the delay. For example, if your flight gets delayed, it will likely fly out the next day. The insurance will pay for your hotel and meals for that night if the airline does not.

Now you arrive at your destination and you need a transfer to meet up with the rest of your group tour. The travel insurance will cover that. You’ll have to pay for it out of pocket, but will be reimbursed as quickly as possible. So keep your receipts.

Travel insurance will cover up to $100 per day for up to five days. It will reimburse you for additional expenses incurred by you for hotel accommodations and meals if you are delayed 12 hours or more. However, it will not pay benefits for expenses incurred after travel becomes possible.

Trip interruption or cancellation. An interruption is when you get stuck in a location for three or four days due to forces you can’t control. For example, there’s a strike that shuts down roads or closes airports and you can’t leave that country for three or four days. Travel insurance covers all of the expenses to stay a few extra days because your trip was interrupted.

Interruptions are usually coupled with trip cancellations. So if you have to cancel your trip because you get sick, injured, or anything similar, travel insurance typically covers up to the total trip cost. And if your trip is nonrefundable, it covers trip payments up to the air and land cost for cancellation prior to departure or trip interruption after departure.

Missed connection. If you find yourself without enough time between your connecting flights, you might be making a mad dash to your second gate. Unfortunately, your best attempts to hurdle over luggage and slow walkers in the terminal might not get you to the gate in time.

There’s no need to sweat. Travel insurance covers costs up to $500 and additional transportation costs to join the trip once you get on a new flight. Also included are accommodations and meals if inclement weather or the carrier itself causes the cancellation or delay of regularly scheduled airline flights for three to less than 12 hours.

Now, don’t just sit back and let the travel insurance do all the work for you if you find yourself in any of these situations. You need to be a good advocate for yourself. But do it respectfully, but insistently. Depending on the situation, a lot of travelers might be in the same boat trying to reschedule a flight or book a hotel room. If that’s the case, take matters into your own hands knowing that the travel insurance will reimburse you later.

You can start by booking a new flight yourself. Once you do that, tell the ticket agent that you’ve booked yourself on another flight and you need authorization from the other airline to accept your ticket. If they give push back and say no, remember you have the right to be accommodated, just do it respectfully.

And when it comes to booking a hotel room, avoid the Waldorf Astoria if you can. Travel insurance will cover reasonable accommodations, not luxury. You don’t have to rough it, but a Marriott or a Holiday Inn will provide you with a roof and bed.

So stay tuned, or bookmark the travel insurance tag. In my next post I’ll cover lost luggage, personal effects, assistance, and more.

Taste of China tour guides shine bright in one couple’s eyes

Tour guides can really make or break an experience in a new country. Anyone who has ever gone on a group tour can attest to that, including Nicole Zuchelli and Zack Grahama. They just returned from Friendly Planet Travel’s Taste of China tour and thought their tour guides took their experience to a whole new level of enjoyment.

Nicole and Zack sent me a detailed e-mail about how wonderful their tour guides were and what they thought were some of the highlights of the group tour. I copied and pasted the e-mail (verbatim) below. Give it a read. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Nicole and Zack in the Forbidden City

“Dear Friendly Planet and CITS,

We just returned from Friendly Planet’s “Taste of China” tour and we are two incredibly satisfied travelers — it was fabulous. Although we’ve been fortunate enough to travel pretty extensively in our lives, this was our first experience with Friendly Planet and our first trip to Asia. We’ve barely been back in the states for 48 hours and we’ve already converted our families into Friendly Planet fans via our ‘Taste of China’ travel tales.

We must tell you that National Guide, David Bai, runs an absolutely excellent tour. David is personable,exceptionably knowledgeable and is careful to keep things lighthearted and fun, all of the essential ingredients for magnificent group travel.

He went above and beyond to ensure that we enjoyed a unique and memorable experience and for that, we are grateful. We’re already thinking about returning for the ‘Best of China’ tour and hope that David can be our guide. Local guides, Alan (Shanghai) and Susan (Xi’an) were wonderful as well, taking extra care to answer all of our questions and it was obvious that all three of our guides took extreme pride in introducing their country to us.

The hotels were fantastic(particularly the Grand Mercure in Xi’an)and the food was delicious and plentiful — no one ever left hungry. Every restaurant that our guides took us to was great and almost all were filled with locals, so we really felt like we were experiencing the “inside scoop” as far as cuisine was concerned.

We feel as though we received amazing value for our money and returned home with a deeper appreciation for travel, a greater understanding of another culture and new friends halfway around the world. What more could you ask for? Xie xie!” — Nicole Zuchelli and Zack Grahama, Los Angeles, Calif.

Thanks for your note Nicole and Zack! Drop us another e-mail if you decide to book the Best of China tour.

Friday’s Friendly Funny

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

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

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