In Uncertain Times, a Prepared Traveler Is a Wise Traveler
You can't safeguard against the possibility of a disrupted trip, or being stranded abroad in the event of a terrorist attack. But there are precautions you can take to minimize potential problems. Here are answers to commonly asked questions:
Q Should I stay home, or should I vacation as planned?
A Because each person has a different comfort zone, no one can make this decision for you. While some get nervous at the thought of being away if there is a chance of terrorist attack, others stand ready to pounce on travel bargains that may erupt when airplanes and hotels go unfilled.
Staying informed and in touch is key. Government resources for travel warnings and advisories include the U.S. State Department (888-407-4747, www.travel.state.gov), the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.fco.gov.uk) and the Canada Department of Foreign Affairs (www.voyage.gc.ca/dest/index.asp). Commercial resources on the Web include World Travel Watch (www.travelerstales.com/wtw) and Air Security International (www.airsecurity.com).
Take a cell phone if traveling domestically. If traveling abroad, consider renting a cell phone (most U.S. wireless phones do not work outside the country); an international cell phone at WorldCell.com, for example, rents for $75 a week, plus call charges. In addition, get a Web-based e-mail account, such as those offered by Yahoo.com, so you can receive and send messages from Internet cafes.
In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, many U.S. travelers were stranded. Is this a possibility in the event of another attack? How can I avoid being stuck?
After Sept. 11, airports throughout the United States were shut down for several days. But this would not be an automatic consequence of another terrorist attack, especially one without air travel involvement.
The more practical concern is whether any of the major airlines in bankruptcy, or close to it, will suddenly stop flying in the event of war with Iraq. Analysts have been warning that war will result in a sharp hike in jet fuel prices, which, coupled with a sudden drop-off in passengers, could further weaken airlines such as United and US Airways, already in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, and American, which is threatening to declare bankruptcy. History proves the concern may be warranted -- passengers were caught short when Eastern Air Lines ceased operations just days after the Persian Gulf War erupted and when Midway Airlines stopped operating immediately after Sept. 11.
While it may make sense to book flights on healthier airlines, such as JetBlue, Southwest, Northwest and Continental, that's not always practical. And booking on a foreign carrier is not necessarily better; many also have fiscal problems and, when airports finally reopened after Sept. 11, only Canadian and U.S. carriers were initially allowed to land in the United States.
David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an activist group, said it is unlikely that United, US Airways or American will go out of business unless there is a prolonged ordeal. And even in a worst-case scenario, federal law requires that other carriers accept the tickets of a bankrupt airline on a space-available basis.
"Know before you go," Stempler said. He recommends that travelers familiarize themselves with alternative airport gateways and with other transportation options, such as trains and car rentals. He also suggested getting paper tickets when possible; they usually cost more, but are easier to transfer to another airline.
Picking up a free flight guide at the airport upon departure (or downloading the information from the Internet) can give you an advantage. For example, if Reagan National were closed down but BWI were still open, you could figure out what airlines go to BWI without standing in line.
I've paid for my upcoming vacation in advance. Is there any way of getting my money back without penalty if I change my mind and want to cancel?
In recent weeks, more airlines, cruise lines and tour operators have tried to reassure travelers by relaxing their cancellation penalties or offering their own optional insurance, allowing customers to cancel with fewer penalties.
US Airways, for example, announced its "peace of mind" flexible travel policy that will allow customers to make changes to previously booked tickets without incurring penalty fees if a Code Red alert is declared. Delta said it will suspend penalties on transatlantic flights booked March 5-31. Other companies that have instituted new cancellation or insurance policies include Virgin Atlantic, United, Continental, American, Crystal Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, Superclubs, Trafalgar Tours, Celebrity Cruises, Uniworld, Ritz Tours and Seabourn Cruise Line.
Most travel insurance policies will cover trip cancellation or interruption due to a terrorist incident in your destination city; some also will cover your departure city. Travelguard (www.travelguard.com), for example, offers a policy that provides coverage if the city you are scheduled to visit has been the site of a terrorist attack within 30 days of your visit. But war in Iraq would not qualify.
"Terrorism is actually included in nearly all travel insurance policies if the policy is purchased within seven to 14 days of the traveler's first trip payment," said Jim Grace, president of Insuremytrip.com, a clearinghouse for 11 travel insurance companies.
Read the cancellation policy fine print for your tour, cruise or flight and ask if penalties have been eased in light of the world situation. Before purchasing travel insurance, read the policy offered with your package, and compare it to a policy that you could purchase independently. For example, some policies with terrorist clauses cover 30 days after an attack, while others cover only seven.
If terrorist attack coverage costs a few dollars more, pay it.
-- Carol Sottili
Carol Sottili writes the Travel Q&A column for The Post Travel section.