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Theft of Passport Photocopy

Q. Recently, my husband and I had photocopies of our passports removed from unlocked exterior pockets of our suitcases. They were put there in case of an emergency. We have traveled this way for over 20 years with no problems. This is the first time the documents have been stolen. The theft has already been reported to the managers of the hotels we stayed at while we were on tour.  We need advice on what to do now. Should we report the loss to the US passport agency?

A. There shouldn't be any real reason for concern, so long as long as it was only a photocopy and not the original. Still, it wouldn't hurt to report it anyway and, in the off chance that someone attempts to use your personal details for some nefarious purpose and you suddenly have to clear it up, at least you'll be able to refer back to having reported the theft. Again, just to be on the safe side.

While having a copy of your passport is a great idea, you might try keeping a scanned copy in Google Docs, Dropbox, or someplace similar.

This Seat Is Taken

Q. Do airlines block out a large section of seats to make it appear there are fewer seats remaining? When our airline cancelled the final leg of our trip, we reviewed the airline website for flights returning a day before as well as after our original return date. None of the alternate flights offered adjoining seats. Yet, when we called the airline, 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. Yep, 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.

Mistake Fare Not Honored

Q. My friends and I recently discovered that Ethiopian Airlines had a special on flights from NYC to Johannesburg for $225.08. It seemed like a good deal, so we booked the tickets through Priceline.
Three weeks later, we received an email informing us that the tickets were invalid and the fare had been issued by mistake.

Priceline is only offering a refund. Shouldn't Priceline and Ethiopian Airlines have to honor the initial fare? While I understand that the fare was issued in error and priced abnormally low but they waited 3 weeks to inform people that the tickets would not be honored. By that point, my friends and I had already paid for our hotel rooms, all non-refundable.

I know in the past airlines have honored mistake fares. Why not now?

A. In many cases the airlines are required to honor these mistake fares. It really comes down to who or what is at fault for posting the fare in the first place, the carrier or the OTA? This is why it's always a good idea to hold off on making additional land or tour arrangements until 100% sure that the airline will be required to honor the mistake fare.

The Airlines Gave Away Our Seats

Q. We were scheduled to fly from Chicago to Orlando via Atlanta for my brother-in-law’s wedding. Our flight from Chicago to Atlanta was delayed due to weather so we ended up arriving at the gate for our connecting flight to Orlando (the last flight of the day) with just five minutes to spare, only to learn that Delta had given our seats away to standby passengers. As a result, we couldn’t get to Orlando in time for the wedding, which was scheduled for the following morning. Under what circumstances are airlines allowed to give away your seat to standby passengers? Why do they do this?

A. You really put yourself on the last flight of the day flying through Atlanta? Whenever you’re flying for a “can’t-miss” event (wedding, funeral, cruise departure, important business meeting), it’s a bad idea to take a connecting flight and a worse one to schedule your arrival at the last minute on the last flight of the day. To answer your question, Delta probably gave away your seat because they figured you wouldn’t make the connection and a standby passenger is the proverbial bird in hand. This has happened to me as well, and it’s very annoying, but apparently it works for the airlines’ bottom lines otherwise they wouldn’t keep annoying passengers like this.

Insurance for Summer Vacation

Q. My family and I are planning to visit Florence and Rome next 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.

Short Term Sales

Q. Why is it that these sale fares are always so short term? Most end long before the time period I might even need to travel.

A. The airlines treat their tickets like inventory in a store. If there's a surplus or the consumer doesn't seem to be buying, they'll run a sale to decrease inventory. Depending on where you want to travel, they may hold off on putting the hot spot vacation destinations on sale to see if more people are willing to pay higher prices, especially during holiday periods or in warmer months.

Passport Valid, Pages Too Crowded

Q. My daughter and her husband travel overseas many times a year. She mentioned that even though their passports will remain valid for another six years, they've run out of space for the customs agents to stamp. Would this mean they have to apply and pay for a new passport?

A. Prior to January 2016, travelers running low on passport pages could simply send away for an additional 24 visa pages to be sewn in, no problem. This practice has since been discontinued. Nowadays, should you run out of pages, you'll need to complete this form and, yes, send away for a brand new passport.

Applicants can opt for a bigger 52-page passport book, or the standard 28-page book. The $110 renewal fee is the same for both passport books. Need it in a hurry? Tack on an additional $60 for expedited service.

You can find more info on passport application fees at

Go for the Gold?

Q. Any thoughts on whether it's worth it to purchase Premier Gold status at United for the rest of this year?

I was Premier Gold last year, as United decided to upgrade certain customers to the next highest level if you were near to making that level (I'd been Gold the year prior to that).

As I've fallen back to Premier Silver status for this year, United says they're making an offer for me to purchase Premier Gold status for the rest of the year (for $1300).  Others that I know with Silver status weren't given an offer, probably because they weren't close to making the Gold level.

The primary benefit is being able to choose seats in economy plus at the time of booking rather than scrambling the night before flying.  Also would have 2 free checked bags instead of 1.

I've heard you say that it's better to just search all sites for the lowest fare on any airline, but I do have status with United, albeit Silver.

A. There are some additional advantages to achieving “gold” on United, especially if you fly internationally with other Star Alliance partner airlines. I’ve always thought that free upgrades to business and first class were the most valuable perks, but those upgrades are getting harder to find. True, you might have priority over other passengers in the event of a cancelation or misconnection. But if only being able to choose premium economy seats is your goal, remember that you can buy a lot of premium econ seats with $1300. It really depends on how often you travel and what you hope to gain from the elevated status.

Departure Time Switcheroo

Q. I need to fly out early in the morning to reach my destination in time for a scheduled event, which is why I purchased a ticket for a 6 a.m. flight. Now I received an email that the airline has changed my departure time to 4 p.m. If I had wanted to leave at 4 p.m., then I would have bought my ticket for that time. Are airlines able to change your flight without your permission?

A. Airlines state in their contracts of carriage that schedules are not guaranteed, but you can ask to cancel your booking and get a refund without penalty, even on a non-refundable fare, if they won't reseat you on the original flight you booked. That's also in their contracts of carriage.

No Purchase Confirmation Email

Q. A couple of months ago, I purchased a ticket online from American Airlines for a flight from Oklahoma City to Syracuse. When I attempted to check in for my flight, I was told that the ticket had been canceled. American said that my credit card had been rejected 3 times by Amex. They also said they emailed me to inform me of the rejection, though I never received an email.   
I immediately called Amex and was told that American had made no effort to charge my card. Since I had to be in Syracuse for business the next day, I had no choice but to purchase another ticket, and this one did not come cheap. Do I have any recourse and if yes, what would you suggest?

A. Though it's rare, little technical goofs like this can happen from time to time. When making a ticket purchase online, you should always be on the look out for some sort of confirmation code on the page that follows and/or -more importantly- a confirmation via email. If you don't see either of the two, the next step should be to check your credit card charges. You can be sure that no charge means no ticket.

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