Travel Q&A

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Preserving a Child's Miles

Q. My 14 year old daughter has 45,000 miles in the American Airlines frequent flyer program but she just got a letter saying that because there's been no activity in the account her miles will expire in December. She's not planning to fly anytime soon, and she is too young to get a credit card as a way to earn miles (I use my American Airlines Visa card to buy everything, and that's how I extend my miles). So how can we protect her miles?

A. There are several easy ways, even without a credit card or taking a flight.

Join the American Aadvantage dining program, using her frequent flyer number. Then register your credit cards on her dining account. Then just have a meal at a participating restaurant and you're all set. (American is currently have a bonus deal where you get 10,000 miles for 10 "dines" of $40 or more; you must register for this promotion).

Buy a few miles from your account to her account. There's a per-mile fee but this is an easy solution.

Or just buy something on the Aadvantage shopping portal (this applies to any airline's shopping portal by the way). Register at the portal with her frequent flyer number. Then go to a participating retailer (there are over 250 of them) and from there sign into the retailer's website in your name. Buy something using your credit card. Your daughter will get the miles even if it's bought with your card.

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Exit Row Responsibilities

Q. Without asking for it, my wife and I were seated in an overwing emergency exit row. We're both 57 years old, but I have a bad back and my wife has arthritis. When asked by the flight attendant if we were "capable" of operating the overwing exit door, we said "no." The flight attendant said "You look capable to me." After some back and forth, we were reseated. Isn't it stupid to assign these seats at random, rather than making sure passengers are willing and able to work the doors in an emergency?

A. As I discovered when I took the British Aiways safety course in London the overwing doors on a Boeing 737 are heavy! Forty pounds to be exact, and I was surprised how difficult they are to operate (tip: if you ever have to open one, sit well back in your seat because the door will hit you as it opens into the cabin, and it will hurt!).  And while the chances of ever having to operate one are miniscule, you were right to ask to be reseated. Overwing exit rows are considered to be a "perk" and some airlines only assign them to their best customers for free or charge extra for them. Next time you fly, look at a seat map at to see if you're sitting in one of these rows (they're clearly marked). Most airlines ask you if you're capable of sitting in these rows when you request these seats, but there is a chance that you'll be assigned one at random at the last minute if no other passengers grab one.

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Always the Last to Board

Q. How are the boarding zones determined? I always seem to end in the very last zone to board.

A. Procedures will vary slightly by airline, but generally, the airlines board passengers who need help and families with young children earlier. First and Business Class next.  After that, frequent flyers with elite status and those who've paid extra for early boarding and premium economy seats. Passengers who are holders of the airline's issued credit cards are also often given earlier boarding privileges. After that, depending on the aircraft and the airline's policy they will board back to front, but this can also vary.

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23 Hours in Shanghai

Q. The cheapest fare I can find to Cambodia involves a plane change in Shanghai. The wait time is 23 hours. First, is it permitted to leave the airport and tourist around in Shanghai without a China visa for a few hours? Second, what would be a "do not miss" activity/attraction for that time?

A. As long as you're holding a ticket onward, and not staying longer than the allotted 48-hours, you'll be fine. From the Chinese Consulate: Visas are not required of passport holders of the following countries, who transit through Pudong Airport or Hongqiao Airport of Shanghai, provided they hold valid passports, visas for the onward countries, final destination tickets and have booked seats, and stay in Shanghai for less than 48 hours: Republic of Korea, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland.

As for what to do during your stay, there's plenty! You'll find a thorough to-do list of Shanghai's Greatest Hits on TripAdvisor. The Shanghai Museum is always popular, as is the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. Even a little after dinner stroll on the Bund is a pretty spectacular way to spend an evening.

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Insurance for Family Trip to Italy

Q. My family and I are planning to visit Florence and Rome in August. I'd like to buy travel insurance so that we are all covered in the event one of us should become ill. We do have group insurance through work but overseas travel is not covered. I don't know what type to buy and I have read stories of people buying insurance only to have their claims later denied because of an honest misunderstanding of coverage. Please advise.

A. The number one reason why people make a travel insurance claim is illness or injury before the trip departs, and some credit cards have built-in insurance for this, so you might want to check your coverage (you have to buy the trip with the credit card). But travel insurance is often more convenient for covering illness that occurs abroad. Whatever policy you decide on, make sure it includes medical evacuation coverage to transport you back home to a hospital of your choice. You don't want to become ill and get stuck in a hospital abroad for several weeks. It can be very expensive to arrange a med-evac flight back home (as in $50,000 or more). You can use or to compare travel insurance policies.

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Travel Insurance Claims

Q. What is the best way to activate the travel insurance I purchased? Due to an unexpected illness, a person in my party cannot take the trip. We are two weeks out from the travel date.

A. First, congratulations for purchasing travel insurance. The most common reason for making claims on such insurance is indeed sudden illness, either experienced by the person buying the insurance or by someone in the traveling party. In order to file a claim, under the fine print of most policies the person who is ill must seek medical attention before the date of travel. You cannot simply tell the insurer that you or your traveling companion is ill and leave it at that. Create a paper trail showing a diagnosis and that medical treatment was sought.

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Flight Changes at Your Expense

Q. We bought tickets last April to travel from Moncton to Vietnam via New York on United. The trip being in October, we bought early in order to get good prices.

Last week, we were advised by Expedia that United no longer offers flights between Moncton to New York.

United offered to reimburse the whole trip. It left us no choice but to cancel everything and book all over again, costing us $463 more. So much for the benefit of booking early, not to mention the stress that caused us since we have to catch up with a tour in Vietnam that is all paid for.

Under the circumstances, shouldn't United offer to do more to correct the situation?

A. This is one of the most un-regulated and annoying aspects of air travel these days. If you were to change your travel plans, United would charge you $200 or more. But United can change YOUR travel plans and cost you $463. Airlines should be required to put you on another airline at the same price you paid when they abandon a route or change a schedule so drastically that the flight no longer works for you.

And unfortunately, there’s no travel insurance plan that would cover this, either.

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Fare Period vs. Fare Availability: there's a difference!

Q. One of your fare listings says "travel through December 17" and I tried to book a fare leaving on Wednesday, November 26, right after work, and coming back the following Sunday night. My itinerary falls within the dates covered in your listing, so why didn't I get that fare?! It was hundreds more!

A. We'd like to take this opportunity to address the difference between the dates of travel period and date availability. Not all dates are going to be available within the dates of travel period, especially on any holidays, peak travel days, or weekends (not to mention any blackout dates that the airline institutes.) We also would like to point out that the airlines will set aside a limited number of tickets at a sale price for each date and some dates will sell out at the lower prices before other dates do. Flexible travel dates will increase your chances of booking a sale fare, as will traveling mid-week as opposed to weekends (although people do book weekend sale fares all the time).

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Crowded Gates

Q. Everytime I fly, I always seem to end up in the last group called to board the plane. I can't help but be a little suspicious of the number of "priority" passengers who seem to zip on by. And I've actually seen plenty of people who board before their group is called or before their rows are called, and yet they are allowed to board whenever they approach the podium. Why do almost all airlines not actually enforce their boarding procedures? I'm okay boarding a little later -- I'm a cheap passenger and don't pay to board earlier -- but I don't like being edged even further back in the process because some people are lying and the people in charge don't call them on it! In the interest of fairness, what can I do? And why does this always happen?

A. I have seen airline personnel enforce these rules, but they don’t make passengers remain seated until their boarding group or row is called. So eager passengers crowd the boarding area, making it difficult for passengers who need to board. I suspect that employees just don’t want to make a scene and the airline doesn’t have the personnel to enforce common courtesy at the boarding area. And you’re right, more and more people have priority boarding, now that you can buy your way to the front of the line with various credit card perks and extra fees.

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Flying With Pets vs. Babies

Q. I recently flew to Florida and brought along my 7lb dog. I spent more on my pet's ticket than I paid for mine. He had to stay under the seat in his carrier, and the airline counted him against my carry-on allowance. How is it that a baby can fly for free, sit on your lap, and the parents are allowed to bring several huge baby bags? They even get to board first!

A. It does seem unfair, doesn’t it? But recent incidents may help to explain why airlines charge such fees. A service animal recently pooped twice in the aisle on US Airways flight, causing an emergency landing, which is very costly for an airline. In another US Airways incident, a pet escaped its cage and bit a flight attendant and another passenger. As you can imagine this probably led to a law suit and a hefty financial settlement. So although I’m sure your pet is the best behaved animal in the world, there are costs associated with having pets on planes. Some passengers are allergic and if an allergy results in an emergency landing or a claim against the airline, there are costs involved.

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