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Entries during 2007-06

Nonstop vs Direct

Q: What's the difference between a nonstop flight and a "direct" flight? Or are they the same thing?

A: Nonstop flights are not the same as direct flights. Direct means that there is no change of planes, but the flight does make a stop. However, airlines play games with the "direct" designation, and sometimes even flights labeled direct require a change of equipment and a layover.

It Adds Up

Q: I want to book a flight from Brussels to Venice on Ryanair. When I attempt to purchase the flight online, the site requests that I also purchase travel insurance. Is this really necessary? I'm aware that this budget airline charges a lot for checked baggage and overweight bags. Is the insurance just another scam?

A: It's true that Ryanair, which currently flies only within Europe but one day may fly trans-Atlantic if it gets approval, charges for checked bags (about $10 per bag if prepaid in advance). It also charges about $5 per pound for any bag weighing over approximately 33 pounds (these fees are each way, not roundtrip). And you're only allowed to bring one item of hand luggage on board, weighing no more than about 22 pounds, meaning that most people end up checking luggage. As for insurance, I think you'd be better off purchasing from a well known US-based provider, such as CSA, TravelGuard, Access America, or TravelSafe. By the way, for those not familiar with Ryanair, this budget carrier often has fares within Europe for just a few cents each way, although the taxes and other fees do add up.

Paper or Plastic?

Q: I flew on Frontier Airlines recently and was shocked to discover that they didn't accept cash payments for inflight TV and alcoholic beverages. Are there other airlines that don't accept cash? I was forced to declare bankruptcy last year and therefore don't carry credit cards.

A: A few other smaller airlines have also stopped accepting cash for drinks, entertainment, food, and other in-flight purchases. These include Aloha, Airtran, ATA, Hawaiian, and Spirit. I expect that at least some airlines will follow suit. Frontier claims that this move will speed service. Think of it this way: if you're using an airline-affiliated credit card you'll get a free trip that much faster.

Car Rentals in Costa Rica

Q: We rented a car in Costa Rica a few years ago, and the rates seemed reasonable until you added in the mandatory insurance. We showed the rental car agent our American Express rental car coverage, but they insisted that the law required us to buy additional insurance anyway. Is this still the case?


A: From what I can gather, it is. You are required by the government to buy liability insurance, which covers you, for example, in case you hit a pedestrian, but does not cover the rental car itself. This insurance can add $10-$20 per day to the cost of the rental. Many people don't realize it, but their credit cards do not cover personal liability when renting a car, leaving them open to potentially devastating law suits (personal auto insurance on your own car may cover you in the United States, but not overseas). In addition, when renting a car in Costa Rica (and many other countries), you may be required to purchase collision damage insurance (CDW or LDW), which costs an additional $10-20 per day depending on vehicle type. But this insurance has loopholes too: as its name suggests, it covers only collisions with another vehicle. It does not cover a collision, say, with a building, nor does it cover vandalism to the vehicle or a damaged wheel if you have a close encounter with one of Costa Rica's notorious potholes. So you may want to buy additional insurance that reduces your liability to near zero. You'll also be stuck with an airport concession fee of 12 percent and a fee for additional drivers. These extra charges can easily surpass the daily rental fee itself. Almost makes you want to take a taxi everywhere or public transportation!

Bereavement fares

Q. Do airlines still offer bereavement fares? I have a mother who is 88 years old and in fragile health. I dread the day when that inevitable call will come.

A. Bereavement fares are available on most airlines. However, the discount can seem pretty insignificant when applied to those hefty last-minute fares. You can try calling the airlines to see how much it will cost, or searching online through a fare search engine (like Travelocity). But your best bet will be sites that specialize in 11th hour deals, like Lastminute.com or Priceline.com, all of which list airfare/car rental packages that are often times much less than what most sites charge for the airfare alone. Also, many airlines have weekend fare sales, and we post them on our website and newsletter.

honey, I shrunk the soaps

Q: Can you recommend a product or website where I can buy travel sized containers of shampoo, mouthwash and so on that comply with the TSA's 3 ounce or less limits on liquids carried on board airplanes?

A: One good source is www.minimus.biz, which sells a wide variety of mini-sizes of everything, not just cosmetics and toiletries, but Raisin Bran and soy sauce, too. But perhaps a better, more economical idea is Easy Traveler, which manufactures (in the USA, they're proud to point out) a range of easily-filled, leak-proof tubes and other containers that are TSA-approved for carry-on luggage. You can transfer any liquid or gel (such as your favorite shampoo) from a large container (even a Costco-sized one) into a 2.5 ounce squeeze tube without spills or leaks. The online video shows how easy it is. The basic kit costs $25, but will easily save you that much or more over the cost of buying expensive mini-sized toiletries. You can also buy Nalgene leakproof bottles from the Container Store where they're currently having a sale on a a large assortment of travel related items.

Emergency medical evacuations can be costly

Q: My aunt and I were visiting Mexico and due to a medical emergency she had to be evacuated back to a hospital in the US because we felt that adequate care couldn’t be provided in Mexico. This emergency medical transport cost over $40,000. Is this an unreasonable amount, or is this what such evacuations cost?

A: They can cost that and more, depending on where in the world the medical emergency occurs and the patient’s condition. Considering the relatively low cost, and the huge upside financial risk, I consider emergency medical evacuation insurance essential for anyone who travels outside the US and Canada, and even more so for those who travel to under-developed countries.

Standard health insurance it does not cover   emergency medical evacuation, which usually involves the urgent transfer of an injured or sick person, who cannot be moved safely using commercial transport, often from a less advanced medical facility far from home to another, better-equipped hospital nearer to home. You need to buy such coverage separately from a company that specializes solely in emergency evacuation or from a travel insurance vendor.

When buying a policy or membership, ask these questions:

Will you be transferred to the nearest “appropriate” hospital as determined by the evacuation agency or insurer, or, rather, to a hospital of your choosing, such as one closer to home where your personal physician and family members can assist in your care? Who decides if you will be evacuated? A doctor appointed by the insurer or agency, or do you (or your appointed representative) get to choose?
Are there pre-existing condition clauses? Is there an upper limit to the cost of the evacuation (since these trips can sometimes exceed $100,000)? What is the upper age limit for coverage?

Arguably the most comprehensive medical evacuation assistance is by two Birmingham AL-based membership programs that specialize in this kind of service: Medjet Assist (www.medjetassistance.com), and AirMed (www.airmed.com). As long as you’re 150 miles or more from home, once you’re medically stabilized either will fly you to whatever hospital you or your family request.

MedJet charges $225 per year for a single membership for individuals up to 75 years of age or $350 for a family of up to two adults and five minor children. A “Diamond Plan” for travelers aged 75-85 costs $395 per year. Coverage for individual trips is also offered. AirMed charges $250 per year for single travelers up to age 75 or $350 for a family of seven. One distinction between the two firms is that AirMed owns and operates its fleet of three custom-designed aircraft whereas MedJet charters aircraft from air ambulance firms as needed.

Both companies are careful to state that they do not provide “insurance”: rather, they are membership programs, in much the same way that the AAA offers services for its members.

TravelGuard, however, is an insurer. This travel insurance specialist introduced a medevac policy last April that includes $25,000 in insurance for medical expenses as well as medical evacuation coverage with no cost limit.  Rates for travelers under 75 years of age range from $69 for a trip of up to ten days in duration to $185 per year for an annual plan ($119/$370 respectively for those aged 75-85).

On the bright side, we could think of worse places to be stuck...

Q: I booked a packaged vacation to Antigua through a travel agency. I called the airline to check on my flights times and seating just to be sure everything was in order. I was told that my return flight had been rescheduled to depart the next day. Now I have to pay for an extra night at the resort. The agency states that they are not at fault, the airline states that they can't help either. I think the airline should pay for the extra night, which is not cheap at $300. Do I have any recourse? Would travel insurance have covered this?


A: It's not really the agency's fault and there may be nothing they can do in the end, but the airline should definitely reimburse you for the extra night's stay. Your travel agency should go to bat for you. If they won't or if that doesn't work, write the airline yourself and demand that they cover your added expenses or at the very least give you a voucher for future travel. Travel Guard ( www.travelguard.com), for example, would reimburse you for expenses up to a specified amount under their policies' trip delay provisions, according to spokesperson Dan McGinnity. Other insurers, such as CSA and Access America, also sell policies that would have helped in this situation.

Refund Madness

Q: I've read that if you purchase a plane ticket and the price goes down you can get a refund. How does this work?

A: Southwest, United, Alaska, JetBlue, and US Air will refund a difference in fare if you buy a non-refundable ticket and it goes down in price before you depart. The refund issued by these airlines is in the form of a voucher good for future travel for up to a year, and they do not deduct an administrative or change fee. You cannot change your flight times or days of travel. Only the fare may have changed. Other airlines also offer refunds, but they deduct between $25 and $100 (on a domestic ticket) from any voucher they issue you. So it's wise to check your fare even after you purchase, and to fly with airlines that don't deduct fees. A new site called Yapta promises to alert you if a fare you purchased has gone down in price and you qualify for a refund. Yapta works with most major US-based airlines but not with Macintosh computers or the Mozilla Firefox browser (only Internet Explorer).

Sweet On Taiwan

Q: I saw that United was having a sale to Taipei, so I got to wondering if it's worth a visit. Is it? Also, I gave up trying to find the official tourist site. Do you know where it's at?

A: I think Taiwan is one of the most fascinating and geographically diverse places to visit in Asia. Last year I woke up from a nap while flying across Asia and happened to look out my window at what appeared to be the snow-capped Swiss Alps. Grabbing the airline's inflight magazine, I quickly figured out from the route map that those frosty peaks were Taiwan's Yushan mountain range, whose highest peak is nearly 12,000 feet. The country's national parks also afford some brilliant scenery closer to earth, and the National Palace Museum is home to the foremost collection of Chinese art and objects in the world (there are 700,000 treasures, only a fraction of which are on view at any one time). And if you're a shopper, you'll find amazing bargains on anything made in the country, including designer eyewear, electronics, computer parts, and bicycles.

Try taiwan.net.tw, the country's official tourist site, for more reasons to visit.
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