Should you travel? The latest on the safety question, airlines, advisories- and a look at tourism worldwide. Should I go?
Americans have been asking themselves, their families, their travel agents and us this question all week. Basically, they want to know if it's safe to take the trip they may have been planning for months. Many are fearful especially about traveling to Europe, but the threat of Iraqi terrorism also has raised security concerns within this country and elsewhere around the world.
Another issue is whether vacation travel might seem callous or uncaring at a time when tens of thousands of American troops are facing hostilities in the Persian Gulf war.
Obviously, there's no easy answer. The world's governments are alert to the potential danger, and heightened security measures are in effect at airports and other public facilities that might be considered targets. But, unfortunately, a terrorist could strike anywhere, and many Americans are cancelling trips -- within this country as well as abroad.
In such a situation, the best advice -- particularly for vacationers -- is to travel only if you feel comfortable in doing so. You probably will be unable to relax and enjoy yourself if you are haunted by strong fears of disaster wherever you turn. Airlines and tour operators have adopted liberal cancellation policies, and many travelers are taking advantage of them, or postponing trips until later.
Following the outbreak of war, the British Tourist Authority in New York began getting calls from Americans asking if it is safe to travel to Great Britain. "We tell them, 'London certainly is as safe as anywhere else,' " says Don Ford, the executive vice president. He is worried that small hotels and tour companies that rely on American tourists may go out of business if the war continues for a long time.
Kemwel, a major international car rental firm with outlets in 27 European and Middle Eastern countries, laid off staff last week because of the drop in transatlantic reservations. But some Americans are still going abroad, says vice president Gerry Kelly, and he places them in three categories: small business owners, who have to travel to maintain their livelihood; Americans of European ancestry with family abroad and "veteran travelers" who have been to Europe many times.
"They know its still safe to go to Europe," Kelly says. "It's safer than driving home from work."
Kelly notes that his customers are "independent travelers who blend into the countryside and disappear." This is an important factor to consider if you are hesitant about travel. Will you be staying at one of the big luxury hotels known to be frequented by Americans? And will you be part of a escorted tour group easily recognized as American? You will be less visible -- and perhaps less likely to be exposed to threat -- by staying in a small hotel or pension and touring on your own.
Avoiding large public functions also may be a good idea. Reports from Europe indicate that many people in the fashion industry are planning to stay away from the upcoming Paris couture shows, and Venice has cancelled its official celebration of Carnival from Feb. 2 to 12 this year because of the Mideast war.
So far, the airlines, hotels and other tourist services overall have not acted to lower prices to attract customers during the big slump in business -- but this could change if the war continues into the spring.
"I don't know that any carrier at this point would want to come out with a promotion -- 'Hey, forget the war, let's go to Paris,' " says Alan Loftin, a spokesman for Pan Am. "It's sticky. It would almost look like you were thumbing your nose at the situation over there."
"Price is not the answer," says Kemwel's Kelly. "You could give out cars for $5, and people wouldn't go. It's a crisis in confidence."
On the other hand, some lowered prices are beginning to appear.
Just prior to the outbreak of war, Icelandair announced a round-trip fare of $249 between Baltimore-Washington International and London or Glasgow. You can book this unusually low fare only a day in advance, and travel must be completed by March 21. Last week, British Airways, which has trimmed the number of its transatlantic flights because of a drop in passengers, announced it was matching the fare on flights from New York and Newark to London. The British Airways fare can be booked only 48 hours in advance. The airline also is considering other promotions, says spokesman John Lampl.
At least one New York hotel, the Lexington in Manhattan, has extended its low midwinter room rate of $99 another month. The seasonal rate, a savings of 30 percent, was to have expired at the end of February, but now -- as a result of the slack economy and the war -- it will be continued through March, according to spokeswoman Linda Kundell.
Americans aren't the only ones more fearful about traveling these days. The French also appear to be having second thoughts, says Suzanne Hall, a spokeswoman for Jet Vacations. The official tour agency for Air France, Jet Vacations sells packages to Americans bound for France and to French vacationers coming to America.
"Americans typically are very sensitive to terrorism," says Hall, while the Europeans usually are somewhat less daunted by it. But the Mideast war "has had a profound effect on everyone." Normally, the firm's very popular Paris-to-Miami vacation packages are booked solid with French families at this time of the year, but cancellations are coming in and space is available.
As of now, most of Jet Vacations' cancellations -- in either direction -- are for trips departing in the next two or three weeks, says Hall. Travelers with April reservations appear to be holding onto them. "It's a wait and see attitude."
Among other developments in light of the war:
Cancellation Policies Travelers who want to cancel tour packages to foreign destinations should be able to do so with many firms, but they may have to pay a processing fee of $20 to $50 per person.
Trafalgar Tours, one of the largest operators of motor coach tours in Europe, is allowing customers who have made payments to postpone their travel plans for a year. Anything they have paid is credited to a later tour of their choice, according to spokewoman Linda Kundell. Trafalgar sells its own form of trip cancellation insurance for $49 person. Any customer holding this option can cancel for any reason and get a full refund.
Jet Vacations is charging a $20 processing fee to anyone cancelling one of its French packages, if the travel documents have been issued. It is charging a $50 cancellation fee if travelers have purchased a discounted Air France airline ticket through Jet Vacations. (The fee does not apply to regular Air France tickets.)
But not every tour operator is as accommodating. One American woman who was scheduled to tour Morocco found she could not get her money back when, as hostilities began, she decided not to go, says Philip Davidoff, president of the American Society of Travel Agents. The best deal he could work for her was an alternate tour through Spain offered by the same company. She accepted but wasn't happy about it.
A travel insurance policy for trip interruption or cancellation that you hold is probably of little or no help if you can't get a refund from a tour operator. "We do not cover declared or undeclared war or civil disorder," says Peggy Mertes, a spokeswoman for Travel Guard International, one of the major travel insurance companies. "This is common throughout the travel insurance business."
Most airlines continue to allow passengers to change itineraries or cancel flights without paying the customary penalty imposed on discounted fares. Pan Am initially had set a deadline of Jan. 24 for cancelling transatlantic flights but now has eliminated the deadline. And TWA's deadline of Jan. 31 has been extended to Feb. 15. In most cases, passengers obtain a voucher for use at a later date. But at least one snag has developed. Travelers holding consolidator tickets, a special cut-rate fare sold by travel wholesalers, may not qualify for a voucher and may face a penalty payment if they cancel.
Travel Advisories The list of countries where Americans should consider defering nonessential travel continues to grow. Because of the possibility of a terrorist attack or hostile demonstrations, the State Department last week advised Americans to defer travel to Tanzania and India. Warnings also were issued for Thailand, where "a credible threat" of a terrorist attack in Bangkok exists, and to the Philippines, where a bomb being carried by two Iraqis near an American facility in Manila was detonated, killing one of the Iraqis.
Before going abroad, check for the most up-to-date official advisories with the Citizens Emergency Center, 202-647-5225. You may want to keep checking, as advisories are being issued or updated frequently. The number also often is busy, so you might instead try checking with a travel agent, most of whom can call up advisories on their computer reservation screens.
Security Procedures Many air travelers are reporting that anticipated delays at U.S. airports because of security procedures did not develop last week, presumably because fewer people are flying. One Washington insurance executive phoned to say she reported to National Airport two hours in advance as requested and was checked through security in a matter of minutes. She then faced a two-hour wait for her departure on a plane to Dallas that was 75 percent empty.
Still, travelers should be prepared for more stringent screening of their luggage. In Germany, electronic devices are coming under special scrutiny, and they should not be packed in carry-on luggage. Marc Fisher of the Washington Post Foreign Service in Bonn reports that at Berlin's Tegal Airport all electrical appliances were taken and put in a pressurized chamber for 48 hours.