Travel smart

March 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Edit

Cure vacation’s headaches before they start

Planning a vacation is a job in itself. There’s more to it than booking a flight. Arranging hotel rooms and ground transportation, understanding currency in foreign countries and creating a budget are just a few of the important things you need to work through to make your trip a true vacation.

To Hire or not to Hire?
Early on, you should decide if you are going to book your vacation through a travel agent. Typically you tell a travel agent when and where you want to go. They research airfares, hotels, excursions, etc. and put together vacation packages. They do all the work; you just have to select the one that fits your dreams, desires and budget. Mike Weingart, president and managing director of Carson Wagonlit Travel World Travel Agency says travel agents are also a valuable resource during your trip. “We’ve been there. We know the pitfalls,” he says. “Let’s say you go to the hotel and thought you bought ‘X’ but are getting ‘Y.’ With a quick e-mail or phone call we can straighten it out. But if you’re on your own, you’re on your own.”

The Internet has made planning your own vacations easier than ever before. Web sites such as Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz eliminate the “middle man” and the fees he charges for his services. Most airlines, hotels, cities, and destinations have their own Web sites you can visit for information. George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, says it’s a good idea to search the airline’s Web site directly. “I think the big story for 2008 is that the best deals will be on the airlines’ sites only, not sites such as kayak.com.” Searching these sites several times throughout the week can help you find better deals. Airlines update their offers and input fares at different times. If an airline revises their offers late Friday, cheaper tickets might be found Saturday morning. Hobica advises checking sites three times a day. Another tip to save money on airfare is to fly out Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday, generally the cheapest days to fly. It is also a good idea to call hotels, excursion companies and attractions directly before you book on line. The salesperson who answers the phone may have some extra perks or a lower price they can offer. If they don’t, you can still book through their Web site. When you have made your selections, be sure to print out receipts and confirmation numbers and bring them on your trip.

Protect your assets
Ignoring small details can derail an otherwise pleasant vacation. It’s best to be prepared for all situations, before and during the trip. Weingart stresses purchasing travel insurance. “It’s so important,” he says. “If a family member gets sick and you can’t go, the insurance pays for the cancellation. Or if your baggage is stolen it can help you with that.” Put a hold on mail, magazine and newspaper deliveries. A huge pile of newspapers in your driveway alerts burglars that you’re away. This usually can be done online. Ask a close friend to check on the property periodically. Also, purchase timers that turn lights on and off to give your home the appearance of being occupied. Do everything you can to deter criminals from taking advantage of the situation.

Power of the Passport
If traveling abroad, a passport is the most important item to possess. They are mandatory for most foreign travel, including air travel between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. They also help when re-entering the Unites States by land or sea. Denise Blackwell, a Houston field officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, says, “What you want to do (when returning) is establish identity and citizenship. You’ll need documents such as a birth certificate and I.D. If you have your passport, it satisfies both documents.” Passports are not needed when traveling to and from U.S. territories, which include the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Pet Preparation
Whether or not pets go along for the ride, they’re still a big part of travel plans. It’s not easy handing off a member of the family to a stranger before a vacation, but a kennel may be the best choice if someone isn’t available to check on them daily. “People should do their homework,” says Lisa Weisberg, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy for the ASPCA. “They should know [if a kennel is] responsible, sanitary or if there have been problems in the past.” Ask for recommendations. Talk to the owners; they can give you an inclination of how pets are treated. Once you have selected a kennel, book early. Kennels fill up quickly during peak times of the year and you don’t want to be searching for one with a vacancy on the day you are leaving on your trip.

Weisberg says the ASPCA recommends animals not fly unless they are allowed in the cabin. If it is inevitable, contact your airline to find out about their pet policies and procedures. The organization advises scheduling an appointment with your veterinarian for a check-up and vaccination updates. Book direct flights when possible; add destination information to collars and mark carriers with “live animal” and arrows indicating the correct orientation. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask to check on your pets if the flight is delayed or there are concerns about their well-being.

Returning
Before buying that bottle of absinthe in France, it would be a good idea to brush up on U.S. importation laws. While many items seem harmless, they are prohibited from entering the country. Rice, Mediterranean tomatoes, Native American artifacts from Canada and Cuban gold are a few examples of contraband. There are also laws against bringing back living creatures and plants. Sometimes mailing items back to the states is a legal alternative. U.S. Customs and Border Protection provide an extensive list of contraband at www.cbp.gov. Not everything is prohibited; the agency puts restrictions on some items while cautioning against others. These rules are meant to prevent diseases or illnesses from entering the United States in contaminated goods.

A hiccup-free vacation doesn’t just happen. You have to do the legwork and planning ahead of time. If you don’t have time or desire to plan the trip yourself, enlist a travel agent. Depending on the option you choose, you will be spending time or money to plan your trip. A memorable vacation is worth the expense.

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