Friday, May 17, 2013

Surefire Ways to Get Mugged on Vacation

May 5, 2013 by Christine Sarkis, SmarterTravel Staff

Flash a Wad of Cash

Flashing a wad of cash in public is like sending a gold-embossed invitation to would-be muggers. Not
only are you telling them you'd be a profitable victim, you're also advertising where you're storing the goods. And in exhibiting a lack of street smarts, you're basically screaming, "I'm an easy target!" For a primer on good money-toting habits, check out our story on the Best Ways to Carry Money While

Traveling. Opt for Cheap Over Safe

Sure, there are times when you can be cheap and safe, but it pays to recognize that sometimes one comes at the expense of the other. Keep this in mind when you're deciding whether or not to gamble your own safety to save a few bucks. You might find yourself making the cheap-versus-safe calculation when deciding whether to stay at the budget hotel in the part of town that guidebooks warn is dangerous at night, or when debating whether to walk back to your hotel or spring for a cab after catching a show in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
Fall Asleep in a Public Place
Here's one direct from my personal playbook. Did I, as a college student backpacking around the U.K., fall asleep in an Oxford city park one summer afternoon after a particularly late night touring the bar scene? In fact I did. During my snooze, I had the vague notion that someone was rooting around in the purse I was using as a pillow, but I assumed it was my travel companion coming back to grab the camera after seeing—and wanting to capture for posterity—a man in hilariously short denim cut-off shorts. Turns out it was not my friend reaching into the purse but rather a stranger, who took the opportunity to relieve me of the Nikon SLR camera I was borrowing from my aunt. Lessons learned: I no longer sleep in public … or borrow cameras.
Carry Unsecured Valuables into Large Crowds
Entering a big crowd with a purse or pockets full of unsecured valuables turns you into a human pinata: a little jostling and the goodies will come pouring out. In crowds, keep your belongings where you can see them. If you're wearing a backpack, move it to your front, and if you've got a purse or a bag, wear the strap across your body and keep a firm hand on the strap. Make sure zippers are closed and do an easy-access spot check before diving into the fray.
Walk Alone at Night
Many times, walking alone in a questionable neighborhood at night turns out fine. But sometimes it doesn't. Regardless of how independent you are at home, when you're somewhere new, it's always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to your personal safety. Rather than taking on the dark streets solo, catch a cab to your destination or find a trustworthy buddy or group to latch onto, even if it's just for the walk back to your hotel.
Lose Awareness of Your Surroundings
I know firsthand how poorly things can go if you don't adhere to this one. For me, years ago,
traveling with a photographer boyfriend to Amsterdam in the dead of winter meant a lot of standing around on snowy bridges while he composed artsy black-and-white shots of frozen canals. Apparently nothing stands out like a man totally absorbed in his fancy camera, because he caught the eye of a passing thief who, as it turned out, was amenable to settling for all his cash instead of the camera. If you're a serious photographer, you're unlikely to leave your cameras at home. But it definitely pays to remain aware of your surroundings. And if you're going to be traveling with expensive equipment, choose your day's gear wisely, depending on where you'll be going.
Ride in Empty Train Compartments
Here's another one from personal experience. Sometimes it happens gradually: You're on a long train journey, the car slowly empties, and suddenly you're the only one in the entire compartment. In my case, on a train ride to Cadiz in Spain, it was only the fast talking of my traveling companion, who pointed out to our prospective muggers that our shoes were far inferior to their own and therefore we couldn't possibly have anything worth taking—plus the fortuitously timed entrance of a large family into the train car—that allowed us to remain with our belongings. If you find yourself in an empty train car, move to a fuller compartment. Even if you have reservations for a specific seat, it's unlikely anyone will care unless the train fills up again.
Look Lost
Confidence is a powerful deterrent against theft. The worst thing you can do if you're lost is look confused or unfold a map and stare blankly at it, trying to regain your bearings. Instead, stride confidently into a hotel (best of all), restaurant (still pretty good, especially if they can call you a cab), or shop. There you can ask for directions without attracting unwanted attention from people scanning the streets for an easy mark Wear Your Wallet in a Back Pocket Not only is putting your wallet in your back pocket a likely path to back pain (the sciatic nerve, which can cause pain through your back and legs, is located just
beneath your back pockets), it's also an open call to anyone with malicious intent and a light touch. Unless you have superhuman peripheral vision, you can't keep an eye on your back pocket, and continually checking to make sure your valuables are still in place merely draws attention to the location of your cash and identification. Tuck your wallet into a front or inside pocket and you'll be better off.
Hang Out in Dark Alleys
Consider "hanging out in dark alleys" shorthand for doing dumb stuff while traveling. You know the sort of thing: wandering through rough neighborhoods and snapping pictures, accompanying new friends to buy hashish off the street, or talking loudly about the expensive jewelry you're wearing. Vacation-induced impaired judgment is a common travel malady, but it's one that can have trip-ruining consequences. Travel is a great chance to get out of your comfort zone, but try to find a safe balance by also trusting your gut and opting out of situations that simply don't feel right.

10 Things You Should Never Pack in Your Checked Bags

Jewelry and Valuables
Of course, it's not probable that your checked bag will be lost by an airline. According to a report by SITA, a company that gathers statistics for airlines, .012 percent of passengers' bags were reported amaged, lost, or delayed in 2010. But if you happen to fall in that .012 percent and your checked bag contains an antique watch, a family photo album, or your wedding ring, you're in trouble.Most carriers require passengers to submit claims forms when bags are lost. Your airline will then tally the depreciated value of the contents of your missing suitcase—if your claim is accepted, that is. Airlines will pay no more than $3,300 per passenger for bags lost on domestic flights. All in all, it's unlikely that you'll receive compensation equal to the full value of your lost possessions.
We recommend leaving jewelry and other valuables at home when traveling, but if you must bring these items on the road, be sure to store them safely in your carry-on bag.
Identification, Passports, Boarding Passes, and Essential Documents
All necessary documents, whether they're work or insurance papers or other sensitive information, should be kept with you in your carry-on bag. But there is another solution—back it up. If you plan to put papers of importance in checked luggage, keep copies (either hard photocopies or copies on a flash drive) on your person.Bottom line: Any important documents you've packed in your checked luggage should be photocopies, not originals. And any documents that include sensitive or private information should be kept out of your checked luggage altogether.
Cash and Credit Cards
All checked bags are screened electronically, but select checked bags are opened by TSA agents and screened by hand. When packing a checked bag, be aware that a security agent—a stranger,
essentially—may be rummaging through your things at some point. There have been reports of TSA workers stealing electronics, money, and other valuables from passengers' bags; as expected, such occurrences are rare. But as a precaution, your cash, checkbook, and credit cards should be kept with you in your carry-on bag.There's always a chance that your suitcase could get damaged en route, too. If a busted zipper befalls your bag, any packed cash will be easy pickins for thieves
Laptop And Electronics
Take it from the TSA. A representative from the agency offered this advice for flyers: "Electronics ... should be packed in carry-on luggage because they are typically fragile, expensive, and more prone to breaking if transported in checked baggage." The threat to your electronics is two-fold: you need to protect your devices from burglary (see previous slide) as well as breakage. No matter how many beach towels you've wrapped around your laptop, it's still at the mercy of baggage handlers and bumpy flights while in transit.
Lighters, Matches, and Flammable Items
The TSA has a handy checklist of prohibited items on its website. Some of the objects on the list are as obscure as they are obvious: gun powder, hand grenades, tear gas, vehicle airbags (packed to
protect a checked laptop, perhaps?). But items of note include lighters, matches, and flammable objects, which anyone going on a camping trip (or travelers who smoke) might need to pack.
Lighters without fuel may be packed in checked luggage. However, lighters with fuel may only be packed in checked luggage if they're in a Department of Transportation-approved case; an example of this is the Zippo Air Case. Matches are prohibited in checked baggage, and flammable items, such as paint or liquid fuel, should be avoided as well.
All of Your Clothes
If your luggage disappears into the mysterious black hole of missing checked bags, you'll thank your former self for putting a clean pair of underwear and some socks aside in your carry-on bag. An entire outfit—enough to get you through a day or two at your destination in case your airline loses your suitcase—is even better. Other daily essentials, like a toothbrush, a comb, key toiletries (though liquids must be in containers no larger than 3.4 ounces), and whatever else you might need if your bag gets lost should be placed in your carry-on as well.
There's a theme here. If you can't live comfortably without it, don't pack it in your checked bag. That old cliche, "better safe than sorry," should be lingering in the back of your mind when you're
organizing your luggage. Accordingly, prescription drugs are best kept on your person.
Passengers are permitted to bring liquid medications onto planes, even if they exceed the 3.4-ounce limit for carry-on liquids. But you'll need to officially declare your oversized liquid medications when going through the checkpoint. Tell a security officer stationed at the checkpoint that you're carrying liquid medications, and hand them over for inspection. It helps to have a doctor's note or a medical ID card, but it's not required. The TSA also suggests that travelers label medications to facilitate the screening process.
Breakable Items
Don't blame it all on the baggage handlers. Sure, they've been known to bust up a prized possession or two. But baggage handlers, under pressure to load hundreds of bags onto a plane in a short amount of time, are just trying to get your flight off the runway—with your luggage onboard. Sometimes this necessitates a good throwing arm. (Read more in Confessions of an Airline Baggage Thrower.)
Fragile items should always be packed in your carry-on bag. If you must bring home that bottle of red you picked up in Bourdeaux, use a product like the VinniBag, which will protect the contents of your bag in case the bottle breaks.
If you bucked the digital trend and snap travel photos on a camera that takes film, steer clear of storing undeveloped rolls in your checked bag. The X-ray machines that the TSA uses to screen checked bags can damage film. Instead, put your film in your carry-on bag and ask the TSA agent at the security checkpoint to inspect your film by hand. The TSA suggests that travelers pack film in clear canisters or clear plastic bags to expedite the inspection process, but this isn't required.
Food And Drink
According to the TSA, flyers should avoid putting food and beverages in checked bags. Passengers aren't prohibited from storing chow in checked bags, but it's a wise suggestion nevertheless. Bottled
drinks are likely to explode or crack in transit, thus ruining the cashmere sweater tucked in your bag. And if your flight is delayed or your luggage gets lost for a while, your packed food might spoil.
If you're traveling internationally, you may be prohibited from bringing food to your destination. Each country has its own rules about what kinds of foods can be brought across borders. Check the embassy website of the country you're visiting for more information

Do you trust the TSA with your luggage ?

While gathering material for this story or posting, I was very surprised at the amount of theft from travelers luggage, and who was partly responsible for a vast majority of the theft. Now, I must add that some of the missing items were the fault of the travelers, they assumed, and did not use common sense.I will say that for the most part the TSA and baggage handlers are hard working honest people,in the military there was the 10% rule,which mean that 10% of th goof offs made the other 90% look bad. I found one comment from a irate woman who  panties and bras, lingerie if you will were lifted out of her luggage. She was very angry because  they were not Victoria's Secret or Frederick's Of Hollywood, just plain everyday bras and panties from Walmart, and they were soiled, worn, dirty, now if you think that was  something please read the following  comments from some fellow travelers who have had the miss-fortune of having items come up missing  from their checked luggage.

Posted By dave T. on April 28, 2008, 3:58 PM

I once travelled from Bombay India back to the U.S. I made it to Philly, went through customs with all 3 of my bags, which had been sealed shut with security tape in Bombay. When I arrived in Atlanta, only 2 of my 3 bags arrived. Someone in Philly had decided to keep my 3rd bag - the one with a month's worth of souvenirs in it - books and wood carvings and saries, mostly. I did a claim through the airline, which was paid, but required copies of all of my receipts (which fortunately were not in that bag), and they only paid 2/3 of the loss. I even flew to Philly the following week and searched the "lost and found" of every airline, and posted "missing" fliers. I was devastated. While I was there I heard that Philly is a BLACK HOLE for luggage. I'm never flying through that city again. Three years ago this month, I flew from Minneapolis to Seattle. Because the flight was full, (which it was not) I was told I needed to check one of my carry-ons, which happened to have two camera bodies and several expensive lens plus my extra medications. It was the lesser of two evils as the other carry-on had my daily medications, digital camera, money, and purse. They would not give me time to repack the suitcases and I was at their mercy. Upon my arrival I found the 'love letter' from the TSA and two very 'trashed' suitcases. The one with the camera equipment was a disaester. The lens were out of thier protective holders and loose, the lens caps were off, 3 multi-packs of film were missing along with a full bottle of vicodin, I had to sit down by the carousel and repack the entire case. The suitcase with my clothes was in the same condition. The clothes had been hastily jammed back in, my velvet dress was a mess, my jewelry was strewn about the suitcase and 2 costume rings were missing as well as a pair of earrings and a bracelet. Because I bought the costume jewelry at a department store clearance sale it looked much more expensive than it really was, I hope they found that out when they tried to unload it or give it away! At the hotel that night, instead of having a casual dinner and seeing a bit of Seattle I was repacking and cleaning up the damage for the next leg of my journey to catch a cruise ship in Vancouver headed to Alaska. I loved Alaska, the cruise was great, my lay over with friends on Vancouver Island was all I could ask for.
 The TSA Struck Again Posted By dave T. on April 28, 2008, 3:58 PM. On my way home from Seattle. I arrived in Minneapolis to find my luggage in an uproar again, no locks, no letter, just the obnoxious little blue security tag from the TSA. I was missing a necklace and a souvenir t-shirt I bought for my husband in Alaska. This time my cameras traveled with me as carry-on so they were safe! Fast forward to last year. I got talked into flying again. (Did I mention how I hate to fly?) This time it was from Minneapolis to Las Vegas. Yep, you guessed it. I was searched again. I had one rolling medium size suitcase sparsely packed, one carry-on and one GIANT purse with all my meds and two digital cameras only. No more flying with all my equipment. I save that for road trips now. Again, cheap but expensive looking costume jewelry which they lifted again. I was also missing a smaller evening bag that I had packed. I wished for my cameras at the Grand Canyon but made do with the digitals, we visited Arizona for a week and I longed for my wildlife lens and extra camera bodies but I survived. When we flew home I was amazed to find my luggage had not been searched. My mindset now is if I can't drive there, I am not going....Northwest ( now Delta) and Steenland have picked the Minnesota taxpayers' pockets for years, the fares will go up, poor service will continue and there is no adventure in flying anymore. Just frustration, lines, delays, searches, missing and/or delayed baggage and sterile areas. (I am a nurse, trust me, those areas are not sterile!) And, I refuse to pay to have my luggage accompany me!Thank heavens my sister has returned to Minnesota after 34 years in Hawaii so I don't have to make that awful trip anymore. I have learned to pack light, buy while I am there, and mail it home.
Posted By laura on April 28, 2008, 12:25 PM

I recently returned from my dream vacation to Egypt. Had lots of little gifts and souvenirs in a duffel bag, which I had planned on carrying on the plane with me. However, the airline nixed that idea and I had to check the bag which had TSA approved locks on it. Upon returning home and unpacking I found that a good 85% of my gifts, etc were missing. Each of my bags had a TSA inspection sticker on them showing that they were inspected in Minneapolis which is where I believe the theft took place. In the past I have had a few minor things pilfered from my bags but not to the extent of my Egypt trip. I know it was the TSA as I checked my bags before I left. I have filed a report with TSA but do not expect any action on their part...after all it is the government who admits and takes responsibility for nothing. I am furious as all the gifts I planned to give are now gone thanks to a thief at the TSA.
Posted By Steven Frischling on April 28, 2008, 1:32 PM

The only downside to the advice to carry on anything deemed important is that it makes folks try to carry anything and everything that they can onto the planes, which takes longer and then fills up the overhead compartment. The piece of advice I most wish folks heeded is to pack LIGHT and only take what you ABSOLUTELY need. Women that find they want three outfits for every day should consider that buying stuff at your destination both enlarges and enhances your wardrobe, makes it more likely to be compatible with that culture/climate, and provides excellent 'souvenirs.' (And also frees up some luggage space at least one-way!).
Posted By Nancy on April 28, 2008, 1:29 PM

There are actually is a growing theft problem at airports. The largest growing theft issue, that I have been able to find by doing some leg-work,is not from baggage. This largest area of thefts comes from "airport thieves" who are not TSA agents or airline employees, these are thieves who seem to specialize in working an airport masterfully. Finding information has been a challenge, but with some research I was able to get a
decent profile on how these people operate in airports.
Posted By Sean,on April 24, 2008, 2:19 PM
I had a digital camera swiped from my baggage last month on a Continental itinerary from Cleveland to Houston on to San Diego, and in the process searching online and investigating my options for recourse (and discovering that I'm completely screwed), I found it absolutely staggering how many upset people there are out there who've experienced similar thefts. Perhaps the widespread nature of the thefts seems exaggerated by the fact that angry people tend to shout the loudest (particularly online), but I suspect not so much. I only travel by air a few times per year, so either the law of averages hates me or this is underreported more than many believe. I'm typically a much more savvy traveler, but I was on the way to a large scientific conference and had reams of abstracts, schedules and other materials I wanted to go through on the flights along with my laptop and presentation poster. Carrying on the camera in my laptop bag (a digital SLR -- with a rather substantial footprint) would have just been way too cumbersome. I guess that'll teach me to go get a larger carry-on for next time instead!
My fellow consumers need to speak out too so that we might get a step closer to a remedy.
Posted By Pat on April 24, 2008, 2:44 PM
I traveled overseas from the UAE, we were informed that electronics NOT in working condition- ie. a cellphone I bought in UAE and NOT set up yet...would have to be packed and not carried on. I packed it in its box and didn't carry it on. My bag was delayed in Gatwick, England and then delivered to US where it went via US customs before being delivered to me....a week and a half later I got my bag with the box but it had been opened and the cell phone was missing. There are multiple points the cell phone could have and probably was stolen. The airline claimed no responsibility because it was an electronic kept in the luggage though I was clearly TOLD at the gate to PACK it. Lovely. I was out $300.00. NEVER got it back. People steal from your suitcases all the time....I've heard this story many times from other people since my experience. DON'T PACK ANYTHING YOU WANT TO SEE AGAIN. Carry as much on as possible and keep it with you. The word "security" doesn't mean much these days....certainly doesn't to me.
Posted By Thomas on April 28, 2008, 12:03 PM

Early last year, I flew from San Diego to Raleigh-Durham after visiting my brother. We stopped and purchased 4 150ML bottles of Crown Royal in their boxes at $35/bottle (NC prices were $52/bottle). I checked the wheeled bag to the X-ray check-in and the TSA agent accepted the bag. Upon arriving at RDU, the four boxes were in my bag, but only 3 bottles actually completed the journey. I guess the TSA needed to have a little party! Even with the theft, I still saved a little, but was it worth the hassle -- probably not.
Posted By Sue on May 1, 2008, 9:08 PM
On Monday April 20th, my husband was flying from Rapid City, S.D. to Salt Lake City. It was 6 a.m. and while going thru security checkpoint, he was asked several times to remove his watch, which he has NEVER been asked to do... He finally gave in and took off his $8,000 new Rolex watch.. He walked thru and didn't alarm, but immediately was pulled out of line for "random" addtl. screening. In that 3 minutes time, his watch disappeared, while under the WATCH of a policeman and tsa employees that were standing watching the line... He filled out police report, only to find out the next day that the cameras were NOT working at all at the particular checkpoint.. His watch is gone, and we filled out the claims form on line and have heard nothing. They haven't returned any of his phone-calls, and police officer has told him he has nothing to investigate, without cameras working... Everything about his experience has seemed to point to TSA employee stealing his watch.. Very frustrating!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Posted By Sheila on April 23, 2008, 1:47 PM
I don't know how typical my experience is but I have 'lost' three TSA locks in the last 18 months the last two cases being on a flight from London to San Jose, CA via LA and the other from Maui last November. We lost a cell phone and 7 or 8 other small items on the London flight. I have also had a number of other cases where the TSA safety lock has been returned unlocked. So who steals and who doesn't do their job returning TSA locks in a 'locked' position I leave to others to decide but in my experience TSA personel at the very least are not doing their job as they should.
Posted By Maria on April 24, 2008, 1:55 PM
Hello, all,Thank you for taking the time to share your stories and insights. I'm sure other readers have gained a lot by reading them.You’re absolutely right that because the TSA is about security, the agency should be held to the highest of standards. Thanks for posting your comment—other readers benefited from hearing your story. As for the other comments posted, this is all very valuable info to get out there to the public. As mentioned, pilfering agents need to be fired and prosecuted. Yes, the consumer needs some reliable means of real recourse. Next--a lot of cases of loss/theft are not reported by travelers, which lets thieves continue their dirty work undetected. That's terrible to hear the other stories about items gone missing, gifts stolen, and locks being left unlocked (or disappearing entirely) after inspection.
Posted By Beth B on April 24, 2008, 8:57 PM

I'm in my 40th year in Aviation. I've worked in every segment over the years. Started as a "bag smasher", and progressed to an Operations Manager at a major airport. The problem started with deregulation. The airlines now have very few career employees, most of them are retired. To be competitive, the airlines are hiring from a lower income level, or contracting out the positions that were normally held by dedicated career employees. A good portion of the current group of bag handlers are just making ends meet. Your expensive cell phone or Ipod is not so much a desired toy, but represents a weeks worth of groceries, or a months rent. They know that the TSA is part of the group that handles the bags, and they take advantage of the inability to pinpoint where the theft occured.
"To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries." ~Aldous Huxley

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Trips Gone Bad

Trips Gone Bad
Your flight got canceled The airline lost your luggage… A pickpocket stole your passport. What to do when travel meets trouble. By Brad Tuttle.

What rights do I have if my luggage is lost or damaged?

First off, nearly all "lost" luggage is in fact not lost, but delayed. If your bag doesn't show up at the carousel, report it immediately; the airline is responsible for delivering it to you wherever you're staying—at no charge. Only 2 percent of missing or delayed luggage is lost for good, but if you're in that unfortunate group, you'll have to itemize what was in the bag and sometimes even produce receipts. On domestic flights, an airline's liability for luggage is capped at $3,300—per passenger, not per bag—and there are all sorts of loopholes: Breakable items like musical instruments and electronics that aren't packed in hard-sided cases are often not covered for damage. Neither are your suitcases themselves. (Weirdly, liability on most international flights is even less—about $1,500 per passenger.)
Which brings me to an important point: Putting anything remotely fragile or valuable in a checked bag is just asking for trouble. Stick that stuff in a carry-on. For that matter, it's best to travel with a carry-on only; that way, your luggage won't disappear, and you won't have to pay to check it. Travelers are getting the message: U.S. carriers lost 1.3 million fewer bags in 2008 than 2007, at least in part because new airline fees resulted in fewer checked bags. If my flight is canceled while I'm at the airport, is there anything I can do other than wait around with the other passengers for the airline to rebook us? Yes. Whip out your cell phone and call the airline—because while the two agents at the counter will be overwhelmed trying to rebook an entire plane's worth of passengers, a telephone rep may be able to help you in minutes. Put the carrier's phone number into your cell phone right after you buy your ticket. If you have an iPhone, download the free Kayak app, which has a built-in directory of carrier hotlines.
Will my health insurance cover me overseas? As with most insurance issues, the answer's not so simple. The first step is to call your provider before your trip and ask what coverage you have in your destination. Many health plans pay for care abroad only in emergency situations. Mild cases—your basic cold, a little poison ivy, a scraped knee—probably won't be covered. But chest pains or a possibly broken wrist? Insurers should pay for you to get checked out, even if it winds up that you only had indigestion or a slight sprain. You'll most likely have to pay out of pocket for all hospital and doctors' visits overseas and then submit claims back in the U.S., so you absolutely need to keep receipts. I get a lot of sales pitches for travel insurance. Is it ever worth the money? If this tells you anything, I've been covering the travel industry for a decade, and I've never bought travel insurance. But I also know that there are situations in which insurance makes a lot of sense. If all you're booking is a flight and a hotel (which can usually be changed for a $100 fee or less), then insurance isn't worth it. But if you're looking at a pricey trip with strict change policies—safari, cruise, villa rental—you'd basically have to eat the money you paid up front if you canceled at the last minute. Compared to that, travel insurance, which generally adds less than 10 percent to your total vacation cost, can be a bargain. Insurance is also sensible if you're leaving the country and your only health coverage is via Medicare or Medicaid, which pay no health costs incurred by Americans beyond our borders. If you do purchase insurance, shop around with policy-comparison sites like and Pay special attention to the plans' trip-cancellation and trip-interruption policies; they state the specific situations in which you are covered—things like illness or injury, death of a family member, and even getting laid off from your job. Every policy is a little different, and if a potential situation is not spelled out, you're probably not covered. Finally, be wary of a travel agent pushing one brand of insurance: The agent may be giving you the hard sell because that insurer pays a big commission.
Besides running for my life, what should I do if I'm caught in a natural disaster or a terrorist attack?
let's back up. The scariest thing about disasters—at least to me—is that they're out of your control. But there are a few steps you can take to set up safeguards. First, before planning a trip to a foreign country—any foreign country—check out the State Department's warnings and advisories at Warnings tend to be about places far down on leisure travelers' agendas—Gabon, Yemen, Afghanistan—but if there is a warning, take it seriously and be ready to cancel. Of course, even if you're just going to London (or Madrid, or Mumbai, etc.), there's a chance things could go really wrong, so e-mail your itinerary to friends and family, and text or e-mail updates to them regularly. Also, register your trip with the State Department at That way, someone can find you in an emergency. And if the you-know-what really does hit the fan? Do the obvious and get out of harm's way pronto. Then contact a U.S. embassy, which will help supply safe harbor and evacuations, if necessary. Often they're not—in which case I suggest making a few friends at the hotel bar and waiting it out. BEAWARE Protect Against Pickpockets.
Confessions Of... A Travel Agent
'I know agents who rarely ever travel at all' September 2005.
Valerie Schneider has worked in the travel industry since 1995 as a travel agent, marketing manager, and corporate travel consultant.
Opening up: The best agents ask a lot of questions. You, in turn, need to answer honestly concerning your personality and interests. If you're not into museums, say so. If you live for adventure, speak up! We're not mind readers, and there's nothing worse than a client who expects us to coordinate the perfect getaway without any input as to what, in his thinking, constitutes perfection.
Airline tickets: Most airlines don't pay commissions, so agents have little incentive to issue tickets unless it's part of a package or tour. Besides--let's be honest--if you're flying a simple round trip, you'll do just as well booking online. But if you're going off the beaten path or are booking a complicated itinerary, it's smart to use an agent. You'll usually pay a service fee (anywhere from $15 to $40), but that's money well spent. Remember, we have access to international consolidator airfares that aren't available online.
Agents' self-interest: Agencies sometimes pay staffers incentives of $5 or $10 for each booking made with preferred companies (ones that give the biggest commissions). Cash rewards work as a motivator--but do they serve the customer well? Not if the client winds up booking a more expensive, less convenient, and less enjoyable trip. So, if an agent recommends a cruise or tour, ask why it's right for you. If the response is just "Because this is a good company," take your business elsewhere. On the other hand, agencies receiving above-average commission percentages from certain suppliers are sometimes willing to give special discounts to customers. An agency receiving a 20 percent payout from a cruise line--12 or 13 percent is more typical--might hand a portion of that right back to you. Many cruise lines have cracked down on rebates--as these backdoor discounts are called--but agencies can always find some way to reward your business, including onboard credits, free transfers, free champagne, and cabin upgrades.

Miss Know-It-All: I don't know everything. No agent does. Even an agent who specializes in a destination can't be an expert on every resort, hotel, restaurant, pub, tour guide, and beach. We try to stay abreast of travel trends around the world, and many of my colleagues study for certifications such as Destination Specialist, but these are no substitutes for firsthand knowledge. Feel free to ask your agent if he or she's ever visited your desired destination, and how recently. As inconceivable as it seems, I know agents who rarely ever travel at all.