Travel Q&A

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Travel Insurance Considerations

Q. When checking travel companies for trips and tours they always suggest purchasing travel insurance. The problem is that sometimes the insurance costs as much as $499.00 per person for a 14-day trip. We are retired and like to travel now, but even at 3 or 4 trips a year, this adds up considerably. What do you think of those annual travel insurance programs that some companies are offering?

A. First, let’s think about the #1 reason people end up using a travel insurance product: it’s illness or injury before taking the trip (either illness or injury to the traveling party of someone near and dear to the traveling party who is not actually traveling—you and your husband are planning a trip together, but your niece gets into a serious accident 10 days before departure and you don’t feel it’s a good idea to take off).  Many credit cards, as I’ve written before, provide quite good coverage for this scenario, as long as you charge your trip (in some cases just a portion, in other cases the whole thing) to the card. Particularly good are the Chase Sapphire Card and the United Chase Explorer Card.

The other thing that happens the most is getting sick or injured after the trip has commenced. If you’re insured by Medicaid or Medicare, your medical and hospital bills might not be covered overseas, so it’s a good idea to have emergency medical insurance, which many travel policies offer.

But the most financially devastating scenario, for which there are annual plans, is this: you’re seriously injured in the middle of nowhere overseas (for example, you’re hiking down the trail from Machu Picchu in Peru and you trip and break your leg in 12 places—this actually happened to a colleague of mine).  It’s going to cost a lot of money to safely get a) to a qualified hospital in Peru but more importantly b) get you back home safely in an air ambulance (assuming that you cannot take a commercial flight because your condition won’t allow it). Companies like MedJet Assist are designed to safely bring you back to any hospital of your choice—from the trail where you broke your leg, to the nearest quality hospital, and then back home, once you’re medically stabilized. Such trips can cost over $100,000 without insurance, so the cost can be catastrophic.

Another fairly common scenario is simply that you miss your cruise or the start of your tour because of a delayed or canceled flight. Credit cards don’t cover that sort of thing, but regular travel insurance does. It really depends on the price of your trip and how much you can afford to write off if something goes awry. I would insure a $5000 non-refundable cruise, but maybe not a $1000 trip if only the first hotel night is non-refundable.

Bottom line: the only travel insurance I buy is, in fact, emergency medical evacuation. I can’t afford to foot a $100,000 bill.

Above image via Shutterstock

Return Fare from Beijing

Q. I was fortunate enough to get a low fare one-way from Prague to Hong Kong. I am now searching for a return fare, probably from Beijing to Toronto and it appears that it is cheaper to buy a return fare from Toronto than it is a one-way from China. Even one-way fares from Toronto to Beijing are half the cost of a one-way from Beijing to Toronto. Do you have any advice on this?

A. You may find that it's cheaper to buy a round-trip fare from Beijing to Toronto and not use the return portion. Or it may work out better to fly from either Hong Kong or Beijing to some other North American city, either one-way or round-trip (scrapping the return, of  course) and finding a cheap ticket onward to Toronto.

If possible, you could also use miles towards your return flight home, which is what many people did for those crazy low Milan/Prague/Hong Kong/Tokyo one-way fares that sprung up a few months back.

Beijing image via Shutterstock

Sneaky Seat Blocking

Q. Do airlines block out a large section of seats to make it appear there are fewer seats remaining? When Alaska Airlines cancelled the final leg of our trip, we reviewed the airline website for flights returning a day before and after our original return date. None of the alternate flights offered adjoining seats. Yet, when we called Alaska, they immediately assigned us two seats together in a section that appeared to be completely filled on their website. How likely is it that we will be reassigned seats?

A. Yes, some airlines do block out seats, even if the plane is half-empty, and sometimes a call to the airline will sort things out. They do this in part to accommodate last minute business customers who are flying on higher-priced “walk up” fares, to cater to their preferred frequent travelers, and also, in some instances, to entice consumers to purchase “premium” seat assignments for a fee. Even if you end up not sitting together, it’s always possible to ask fellow passengers to trade seats. A good strategy is to offer to buy the accommodating passenger a couple of cocktails on board, or bring along some Starbucks gift cards ($10 should do the trick) as a thank-you.

Above image via Shutterstock

Last Minute Fare Hunt

Q. Is it possible to find an inexpensive walk-up price for any airlines these days? I'd like to fly to San Antonio in the next few days to visit a sick family member and flights are over $500.

A. Walk up fares are far from cheap, so you might give Priceline's Name-Your-Own-Price a shot. We've managed to score some pretty terrific fares for last minute trips, even when booking the day before departure. Before placing your bid, Priceline provides the current going rate along with recent winning bids from other users, which is pretty helpful. If your bid isn't accepted, you'll be asked to change your search parameters - such as the number of connections you're willing to make, or choosing nearby airports, before eventually raising your bid. Chances are you'll find something for much less than $500.

Above image via Shutterstock

Narrow Connections

Q. Whenever I ask about tight connection times, either from the airlines or tour companies, I'm told "they" state that time is sufficient to go from your plane to the next. Recently I was told that two hours is a sufficient amount of time at Heathrow to get off my plane in the international terminal, find the shuttle and proceed to my next terminal, have my hand baggage check, then go through a security screening, and then proceed to my gate. The Heathrow site states that you need a "minimum" of 90 minutes to accomplish this and that's once you are off the plane, which sometimes can take more than 15-20 minutes. Heaven forbid the plane is even a little late. Who is the "they" that come up with these times? Not everyone is a young airport Olympian.

A. 90 minutes really isn’t enough time to do a connection at Heathrow. Even if you’re in the same terminal, you’ll need to go through security again, get on a people mover if you’re in Terminal 5, and walk to the gate; and if you’re changing terminals that takes extra time. Two hours is pushing it, too, if your flight is late. It’s sometimes possible to ask the airline or your travel agent to build in a longer layover (taking the next flight out) without incurring a higher fare. That said, British Airways is pretty good at monitoring tight connections so when you leave your inbound flight you’ll often be met by employees who can help facilitate your transfer.

Above image via Shutterstock

Fare Period vs. Fare Availability

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).

Above image via Shutterstock

Booking Snafu: Best to Confirm Ahead by Phone

Q. I used my Alaska Airlines miles to obtain a flight on American Airlines from Seattle to Miami for a quick weekend trip. I received a confirmation email from American with a record locator and seat assignment. But when I went to check in online 24 hours before departure, I was told that online check in wasn't available to me and that I'd have to check in at the airport. When I got to the American ticket counter a couple of hours before my flight I was told that there was no reservation for me. Not just no seat, but that the entire reservation didn't exist. I went home, furious, and had to eat a non-refundable $100 reservation in Miami. I also had important appointments in Miami that I cannot reschedule until next year. AA is blaming Alaska, and Alaska is blaming AA. Alaska, after some back and forth, offered me an insulting $200 future travel credit. What do you think happened to my reservation and do you agree that a $200 credit is enough?

A. I checked into this with American, which was the airline your seat was booked on, and they claim that Alaska didn't send your booking information to them in time. Of course, I have no idea who is to blame here, but a couple of things to note: first, no, $200 is not enough, especially considering your losses. I would continue to politely pester both AA and Alaska and have them up the offer to at least a $500 credit. And second, whenever you cannot check in online, that's a red flag and you shouldn't wait until getting to the airport to figure out what's going on. In my experience it means there's no seat for you. It happened to me a while back on American and when I got to the airport, despite having a first class seat assignment and record locator, I was told that I was being bumped to a later flight. There was no explanation given, such as the flight was oversold: just no seat. Perhaps a third point is that whenever you buy a seat from one airline on other airline's equipment (such as a code share situation), you up the odds of something going wrong as happened to this poor chap. Avoid doing so whenever possible. Related: how to file an airline complaint.

Above image via Shutterstock

Layover Logistics

Q. I have the possibility of arranging my trip so that there is an 8 hour layover in Amsterdam. I figure this is an opportunity to see the city. But is this worth it, considering all the problems with transportation, customs, and needing to be back for check in two hours early?

If the layover works, would this be a good idea to check my carry-on as baggage at the origin, so I don't have to lug it around Amsterdam?

A. There's probably just enough time to at least set foot in the city center. There's a high speed train that takes just 15 minutes each way to/from the airport. However, Schiphol is a massive airport and the lines can really slow you down, so plan to be back at the airport 3 hours ahead of flight time just in case. You never know what might happen.

You can leave your luggage in a locker at the airport for a fee, so no need to lug it.

Above image via Shutterstock

Safely Packing Pickles & Pepper Jelly

Q. I am planning to bring homemade jalapeno pepper jelly & pickles in my checked bag. They are in 4 oz jars and one dozen are packed in a tote. Is this allowed in a checked bag?

A. You are allowed to pack food items in your checked bag! Heck, you could even fold the entire contents of a delicious spaghetti dinner into a checkered table cloth, red wine and all, and freely toss it in your checked bag should you be so inclined. But if you plan to pack clothing alongside these jelly jars and pickles, you may consider containing them in something more substantial than a cloth tote. Even if using hardshell luggage, your bag is likely to receive some pretty rough treatment in transport (really really rough), so how about securing any potential spills with heavy duty resealable freezer bags? You'll also find leak-proof inflatable pouches available on Amazon. Good luck!

Above image via Shutterstock

Why is using airline vouchers so hard?

Q. On our return trip from Chicago my wife and I gave up our seats because the flight was oversold and we each received a $400 voucher for future travel. Can these vouchers be redeemed only at the United desk at an airport or can we do it online or on the phone? Do all major airlines have the same policies?

A. Not surprisingly perhaps, some airlines don't make it easy to use vouchers. United and American, for example, don't allow you to enter the voucher number on their websites and book travel that way. You either have to do it at an airport ticket counter (or city ticket office, but those are far and few between; AA only has three left). You can also buy your ticket on the phone and tell the agent that you have a voucher; you'll be asked to mail the voucher and the value of the voucher will be deducted from your fare once it's received. I recommend that you make a copy of the voucher. Delta, in contrast, allows you to apply the voucher's value online.

Above image via Shutterstock

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