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Entries during 2007-05

Bag Overboard

Q: We took a cruise recently and our luggage was misdirected by the cruise company between the plane and the ship. So we had one change of clothes for most of the 10-day cruise. The cruise line gave us a small shipboard allowance to buy clothes and toiletries, but it hardly made up for our inconvenience. They say that they weren't required by any regulation to do even that. Is that true and what could we have done to prevent this from happening or what should we do now?

A: Cruise lines are notorious for not taking full responsibility in instances like this. Airlines actually do a much better job, since there's a Federal law requiring that an airline that loses or damages your luggage is liable for up to $2500 per passenger. On your next cruise, pack lightly and don't check your luggage at all (I've never checked luggage, and I don't feel comfortable leaving it in the hallway on the last night of the cruise, as is required if you do check, because you never know if some unscrupulous passenger might ransack it, and the cruise line will take no responsibility if this happens). Or if you do check it with the cruise line, never let it out of your sight (make sure you identify it at baggage claim and see it loaded onto your bus). If that's not an option, buy travel insurance that includes lost, damaged, or delayed baggage protection.

New Zealand for Newbies

Q: My daughter and a friend would like to visit New Zealand for a about a month this summer. Do they need a visa? They are thinking of staying in youth hostels and using public transit to get around the country. Any specific web sites to check out?

A: They don't need a visa unless they stay over three months. Public transportation is inexpensive and easy to navigate, and youth hostels are a great way to save money and meet people. You can find everything you need to know about planning a trip at purenz.com, the official tourism site. And just a side note, New Zealand is one of the world's most beautiful countries, a place I'd gladly revisit if I had the time (I actually prefer it to nearby Australia). And a tip about airfare: your daughter and her friend should definitely compare fares on Air New Zealand's web site. Air New Zealand doesn't charge extra if you stay over 30 days, as most airlines do, and they usually have lower fares on their site than you'll find on Travelocity, Orbitz, etc.

Vancouver for Cruisers

Q: We are taking an Alaskan cruise on the Celebrity line's Mercury ship and leaving from Vancouver. We bought the cruise online, and have some questions we thought you could advise us on. We are arriving in Vancouver a few days before the cruise and would like a suggestion about how to get from the airport to the city. How much does a taxi cost or is there an airport bus or public transit? Can you also suggest a good hotel that is near the dock we will be departing from?

A: I would take a taxi from the airport rather than the airport bus. A taxi will cost you no more than $35 and takes about 30 minutes. The airport bus costs $13 per person, but takes forever to get to the city and the service is poorly run: it operates every 20 minutes but if the bus is full, which it often is at peak times, you'll have to wait another 20 minutes, and last time I took it there was no air conditioning. Adding to the misery, to reach some hotels, you need to transfer to yet another, smaller bus once you reach downtown. This is no way to begin the trip of a lifetime. As for your hotel, the Pan Pacific Vancouver is a top choice, especially since you'll be able to walk from the hotel to where the Mercury docks through a covered passageway. By the way, the Mercury recently underwent a very pleasing renovation, and you'll find the service, cuisine, and shore excursions on Celebrity to be first rate, so you made a good choice.

the Zoom Waiting Room

Q. Whats the story with Zoom Airlines? A while back, you guys were talking up their new JFK to London Gatwick service, but everytime I go to their web site and try to actually buy a ticket, I get some message about their approval status with the Department of Transportation. What gives?

A. Zoom Airlines, a Canadian airline, is waiting (and waiting and waiting and waiting...) for final approval from the DOT before they can legally sell tickets to American citizens. If you happen to be a UK or Canadian citizen, and click accordingly on your country of origin on Zoom's web site, you'll have no problems purchasing tickets for this New York/London route. The folks at Zoom assure us that flights will operate as scheduled, with the first one set to depart JFK on June 21, and hope to receive the green light from the DOT within the next week, or very early June. With midsummer flights as low as $254 one-way, including taxes, we're cool with waiting. Sign up for their newsletter and receive word as soon as tickets go on sale. Or, you know, just check back with us.  

the Zoom Waiting Room

Q. Whats the story with Zoom Airlines? A while back, you guys were talking up their new JFK to London Gatwick service, but everytime I go to their web site and try to actually buy a ticket, I get some message about their approval status with the Department of Transportation. What gives?

A. Zoom Airlines, a Canadian airline, is waiting (and waiting and waiting and waiting...) for final approval from the DOT before they can legally sell tickets to American citizens. If you happen to be a UK or Canadian citizen, and click accordingly on your country of origin on Zoom's web site, you'll have no problems purchasing tickets for this New York/London route. As for us Americans, we'll just have to wait. The folks at Zoom assure us that flights will operate as scheduled, with the first one set to depart JFK on June 21, and hope to receive the green light from the DOT within the next week, or very early June. With midsummer flights as low as $254 one-way, including taxes, we're cool with waiting. Sign up for their newsletter and receive word as soon as tickets go on sale. Or, you know, just check back with us.  

Family Miles

Q: I frequently purchase tickets for relatives. I am told most airlines do not allow me to get credit for the miles earned on these purchases, because I am not the traveling passenger. Do you know of any airlines that allow me to get frequent flyer credit for tickets that I purchase for someone else? OR is this standard through out the industry? Is my only option to apply for a credit card that allows me to accumulate miles based on purchases rather than miles I actually travel?

A: The only way I know to accomplish what you're asking is to join the British Airways Executive Club frequent flyer program. You and up to six other members of your household, including children, can earn and redeem BA miles together. "Household" is fairly loosely defined. Participants in the household account don't necessarily have to live with you, but they will receive any mailed communications at your address. You can earn and spend miles generated by your purchases for these six people on British Airways or on one of their 14 participating OneWorld partners, such as American Airlines. To give your account a boost, sign up for their Visa frequent flyer credit card, which has some great benefits including at least 15000 bonus miles with first purchase, and unlimited first class, business class, or premium economy full fare companion tickets (buy one, and your companion flies for free). If readers know of any other workarounds for this problem, please do share.

Refund Woes

Q: I bought a ticket on American Airlines to attend my nephew's wedding and wedding reception. After purchase (the fare was $135 round-trip with tax), I learned that I would miss the reception because I had scheduled my return for 4:30 PM and the reception was to start at 3 PM. So I paid a $60 change fee to leave on the 6.30 PM flight. But then, just before I was to leave for Baltimore, American canceled the 6.30 PM flight. Not only did American not notify me of this change (I found out about it quite by accident, and yes they did have my full contact information), but it gets worse. Naturally, I needed to cancel my ticket on AA and find an alternate flight on another airline that would allow me to attend the reception. Because American notified me less than 7 days before departure, I ended up paying for an expensive last minute flight on Delta. The American representative I spoke to said I would get a full refund of my original fare, including the change fee I paid to fly on the now non-existent later flight. This never happened. I have faxed and emailed American on several occasions, and have been given nothing but the royal runaround. Any idea how to proceed in getting their attention?

A: Yes, take them to small claims court and sue them. It will send them a message. American's contract of carriage, which is continually being weakened to favor the airline over its passengers, clearly states that if they can't get you to where you're going due to a flight cancellation, and you haven't embarked on your outward segment, then they are required to refund even a non-refundable ticket in full. And I quote:

"Involuntary Refunds: In the event the refund is required because of American's failure to operate on schedule … the following refund will be made directly to you -

1. If the ticket is totally unused, the full amount paid (with no service charge or refund penalty), or
2. If the ticket is partially used, the applicable fare for the unused segment(s)."

American, like other airlines, has reduced staff, which has resulted in worse service, and more complaints, which now are being handled by fewer staff. It's a vicious circle. You're not the first American passenger that has had trouble getting refunds, even on full fare refundable tickets.

You might give it one more try, writing a certified or registered letter to:

American Airlines Customer Relations
Mail Drop 2400
P.O. Box 619612
Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport, TX 75261-9612
Fax 817-967-4162

But if that doesn't work, seriously, sue 'em. They're hoping you won't so they can keep your fare, and the icing on the cake change fee too. What the heck, they have to make money somehow.

A Place to Hang your Cappello

Q: We're contemplating a visit to Italy, with a drive along the Amalfi Coast, stopping in Positano. What are the best hotels to stay in along the way, and when is the best time to visit?

A: This part of Italy is rife with legendary hotels. Weather-wise, many people prefer May and September, when the weather is a bit more temperate. Among the best hotels in the region are Le Sirenuse, and the Hotel San Pietro in Positano, the Caruso Hotel in Ravello, and the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria in Sorrento. One word of advice though: these hotels are all relatively small and very popular, so booking ahead is essential. Indeed, Le Sirenuse is sold out for most of this spring and summer, with rooms opening up only in October. And bring plenty of Euros because they're not cheap.

Cadillac of the Sea

Q: I've never taken a cruise before and wanted some advice about how the different lines compare. I'm a car buff, so perhaps you could put it in terms I might understand, such as Carnival Cruise Lines is a Toyota or whatever. I drive a Volvo if that makes any difference.

A: An interesting way of looking at it I suppose, although the truth is the even those cruise lines that you might suppose to be "mass market" these days offer very upscale cabins or "concierge levels," similar to what you'd find in a fine hotel. I guess I'd call Celebrity, a line that I particularly like for the value it offers, the Volvo of cruise lines: upscale, but still affordable, with European flair. Carnival, NCL and Royal Caribbean would be the Fords, Acuras or Toyotas. Crystal, Regent, Seabourn, and Silversea are at the end other of the spectrum, the Mercedes and Lexus of the bunch. Disney is a good solid SUV of a line , perfect for families. In general, I tell people that if they've never cruised before or they're the "antsy" type, then a very large ship such as Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas is a good choice since it's hard to get bored, even if you never leave the ship.

Suiteless in Seattle

Q: Can you recommend a small but stylish hotel in Seattle? We're not into Hyatts or Sheratons.

A: You might check into the Pan Pacific Hotel (2125 Terry Avenue, 206-264-8111) in that case. This new 160-room hotel opened just a few months ago and is definitely not cookie cutter. All rooms offer free WiFi connections and 32-inch plasma TVs among other amenities. There's a Starbucks off the lobby, and you're an easy walk to downtown Seattle, a Whole Foods supermarket, and Nordstrom's flagship store. They're offering special rates currently of $172 per night if you stay two nights, or $150 per night for a three-night stay if booked on Pan Pacific's web site.
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