Tuesday, January 29, 2008

JCB Credit Cards Accepted in Europe?

Here's a question for you, our readers:
Have you found the JCB credit card (chip-and-pin) widely accepted in Europe, especially at automated facilities such as gas stations?

There have been some online discussions at Upgrade and Frommers that Europe is going all chip-and-pin, but currently to our knowledge no U.S. Visa or MasterCard offers chip-and-pin cards. Visa, MasterCard, and American Express insist that swipe-and-sign must be available from any merchant that accepts their cards, yet that could be an issue with automated 24-hour gas pumps, self-vending train ticket machines, grumpy waiters, etc.

The JCB credit card is available to residents of certain U.S. states, and could be a useful international travel tool. Let us know your experience obtaining or using a JCB card.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Hilton HHonors Gets Better

As we’ve noted before, we’re pretty big fans of the Hilton HHonors frequent guest program. According to an email just received, the program has gotten even better. Hilton as now instituted no blackout days and no capacity controls. To quote Hilton: “Reward stays are not subject to blackout dates or capacity controls.” That seems pretty unambiguous to us.

We’ve previously endorsed the HHonors program and the Hilton American Express card, which earns 3 to 5 HHonors points per dollar spent (depending on purchase category). The way we’ve redeemed points (and we’ve used points for both hotel stays and converted them to airline tickets), that translates to roughly 4 cents per dollar – better than most cash rebate credit cards, and generally far better than most airlines’ approximate 2 cents (or less) per dollar redemption rates.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Car Rental Tips

In our opinion, there’s no such thing as a “good” rental car company – there are just varying degrees of “less bad.” The Upgrade blog recently mentioned a Dollar “top-up” charge for returning a car with a full tank. Just last week, we were told by a Budget agent that if we drove too little (“less than 75 miles”) that they would fill up the gas at their price, whether we wanted it or not. Where do they find the lawyers to dream up and write this stuff?

When you rent a car today, you’ll be asked if you want to upgrade, if you want extra insurance, if you want a GPS system. Plus, we’ve heard far too many horror stories of “fake” car damage that the customer is charged for to not believe them. If you’re renting a car anywhere, it’s truly become Buyer Beware. So here are our tips.

1 – Reserve online, which should give you a price guarantee. Keep a copy for when you get to the rental counter.

2 – Decline everything. Upgrades, insurance, everything.

3 – Use a Visa or American Express card to pay for your rental. These cards seem to provide better supplemental rental insurance than does MasterCard.

4 – Offer the rental counter a “second” credit card for them to imprint when you pick up your rental. The car company may (as do some hotels) put a “block” on your card for an absurdly high amount (sometimes several thousand dollars), and if you have a lower credit limit on your card the block may effectively reduce or even cut off your credit line. Assuming you have more than one credit card (and we suggest you always travel with at least two cards), offer one when you rent the car (and the same card when you check into a hotel), but upon return of the car (or check-out from the hotel) pay the final bill with your “main” card if you prefer. (While this is a good option, many car rental companies now use a quick-return scanner that spits out a credit card slip for the card you rented with. If you want to change cards, you may have to return to the counter, and not use the quick-return option.)

5 – Carry a digital camera and take pictures (dated!) of the car from all angles, inside and out, when you pick it up and when you drop it off.

6 – Save your paperwork long after your travels, in case you need to dispute anything later.

7 – As we said, decline supplemental insurance, especially in the U.S. Assuming you have your own auto insurance, it should cover you adequately, especially with the additional coverage provided by your credit card. Do your homework before renting internationally. Several reports indicate that Visa may be the best card to use for overseas car rentals. We’ve also heard that there are a few foreign countries where you do need to (or have to) accept the supplemental coverage offered. We’ve heard that Mexico, Italy, Australia, Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, and New Zealand can be problematic – we haven’t rented in any of those countries recently, so don’t have up-to-date first-hand knowledge.

Pray that's not your rental car.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

International Travel Tips - Part II

Here are another two international travel tips in our ongoing series.

Understand Local Transportation
Trains, tubes, trams, subways, metros, busses, cable cars, taxis, and every form of transportation in every city and country is different. If you get nothing more from your guidebook, study in great detail the intricacies of using public transportation systems. On London’s Tube, you’ll want to get one type of ticket depending on your journey, length of stay, etc.; on the Paris Metro, it’s a completely different system, even though many ticket types are similar. On some systems, you’ll need your ticket to exit a station. On some trains/trams you’ll be expected to self-validate your ticket upon boarding; on others, you’re expected to wait for the conductor to validate your ticket. And once you finally get the hang of the system in one country, you’ll cross the border into another and everything will change again. Ah, the joys of travel.

Cell Phones Are Surprisingly Indispensable
Americans think they can’t live without their cell phones. In Europe and much of Asia, “mobiles” are even more ubiquitous (and almost essential). It can sometimes be a hassle finding a cell phone and service for the country you’re visiting (see our previous post), but it may be your most useful travel tool. You can make lodging reservations in advance, leave a call-back number for contacts you’ve missed, or call for dinner reservations. Once, in Amsterdam, we would have missed the best Thai meal of our life if we hadn’t had a cell phone to play phone tag with friends-of-friends who we finally met up with. Get a phone, as well as a good international cell service plan, a local SIM chip, or an international roaming chip (that actually works). And unless you’re a heavy-user business traveler, don’t worry too much about call-per-minute costs – the convenience and reliability of the phone and service is what’s most important.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rental Car Rip-Offs

We're working on a more comprehensive rental-car article (with tips and information), but in the meantime, read this post on the Upgrade blog. We've recently had good luck with Hertz and Budget, but the rental-car companies are getting out of hand with absurdity such as this.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Annual Freddie Awards - Frequent Traveller Programs

If you have a favorite frequent flyer or hotel program, we encourage you to vote in the 20th Annual Freddie Awards. The Freddies honor the “best” frequent traveler programs – airlines and hotels. We have our own opinions, and have expressed them in this blog and by our vote in the Freddies. We encourage you to do the same – to keep the good programs going and to send a message to the other programs to get their acts together. Voting ends Feb. 29, 2008, and the winners will be announced on April 24, 2008.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Kudos to Alaska Airlines

We continue to be impressed with Alaska Airlines. Not only is the service more than acceptable in these days of surly flight attendants and delayed flights, but their customer service department and website are actually pleasant to use. One can even make one-way award reservations (try that on one of the Dinosaur carriers); the airline has change fees, but they aren’t criminal (as on some other airlines); their frequent flier program is excellent; and the web flight search is simple and seamless.

Alaska doesn’t have an extensive nationwide route network, but their main lower 48 hub is in Seattle, an airport which has non-stop flights on many airlines to both Europe and Asia. If you’re anywhere on the west coast, look into Alaska. In addition to western-U.S. service (including Alaska and Hawaii), the airline also has non stops to New York, Chicago, D.C., Boston, and Florida, as well as to several destinations in Mexico.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Travel Trends 2008 (?)

For some weird reason, we get a kick out of the traveller’s surveys that come out of TripAdvisor. The most recent was a survey of 2,500 users of the TripAdvisor website about their outlook on travel for 2008.

  • 41% of Americans said unfavorable exchange rates will prevent or limit their travel to Europe
  • 26% intend to be more environmentally conscious in their travel
  • 34% of Americans are planning to engage in an educational activity on vacation this year
  • 48% of travelers are likely to visit a spa while on vacation
  • 80% of travelers are concerned about germs, bacteria and viruses while traveling
  • 78% of travelers believe that cell phones should not be allowed on flights
These are, of course, the most pressing travel issues of today.

Europe was cheaper then: Old postcard circa 1930s, Piccadilly Circus, London

Monday, January 14, 2008

City Guides for Short Stays

The website of the British magazine Business Traveler has a series of quick-bite city guides to various cities around the world. Not at all comprehensive or detailed, the guides nonetheless list about half-a-dozen spots in each city, with a handy small map. These are, obviously, geared to business travelers who maybe have an afternoon free to explore, yet can be useful to anyone. U.S. cities currently covered include Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, and New York. There are more than 30 European cities currently covered, including London, Rome, Cork, Copenhagen, and many more. Around the rest of the world, the guides cover Tokyo, Seoul, Nairobi, and several other destinations. These will never replace Lonely Planet or Michelin, but if you are in any of these cities for business, or are on a very short stop-over on a longer trip, the guides might be just the ticket to lead you to a few interesting sights.

Map of Copenhagen from Business Traveler's City Guides

Saturday, January 12, 2008

London Airport Transfers

We haven’t tried them yet (but will this fall on our next UK trip), but a new airport-to-hotel shuttle in London sounds very appealing. We’ve used such door-to-door shuttles in many places around the world, but somehow in London we always ended up taking the Heathrow or Gatwick Express trains. The National Express dot2dot service from central London to Heathrow and Gatwick airports seems competitively priced with the express trains, and a lot more convenient than cramming your luggage on the tube, making the train connection, and then schlepping your kit through train terminal and airport.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Favorite Travel Blogs

We don’t know if it’s us or them, but some of our previously favorite travel blogs seem to be going downhill in quality. We won’t mention any names, but will post a few of our new favorites. Some of our old preferences are still OK and offer some good info, but are simply no longer near the top of the list.

Most folks read blogs to experience a variety of voices – our take on things travel is different from another blogger's and that different from another still. And we read travel blogs for different reasons – news, destinations, advice, opinion. Thus, a short list of a few of our favorite travel blogs. We hope you find them – as well as this blog – entertaining and useful.

Upgrade Travel Better
The Cranky Flier
Today In The Sky
Travel Rants

Coming up: Favorite travel sites, and favorite travel news sites.

Malecon, Havana, Cuba

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Counterpoint Opinion About the “Open Skies” Name

With just a little difference of opinion to my husband’s latest blog about the new Open Skies Agreement, Ken asked me for a counterpoint blog. When I first heard of a new international airline named “Open Skies,” my ears perked up. For me, being the consumer in the family and not the marketing guru, “Open Skies” airlines seems an exceedingly pleasing way to fly overseas. It brings to mind a stress-free, peaceful time in the sky – sort of like daydreaming.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

British Airways Announces “OpenSkies” Airline

In a nod to the new Open Skies agreement, which allows airlines to fly between any U.S. destination and nearly any European one (not just between the U.S. and the airline’s home country), in June British Airways will begin operating a new airline from New York to either Brussels or Paris (with flights to the other city to begin later in the year). Competing international routes are usually beneficial for consumers, but in reality this may be more about BA being able to offer lower-cost U.S.-to-Europe routes (fees into the UK and Heathrow are high).

The new airline’s name? “OpenSkies.” From a marketing standpoint, brilliant; as a tool to differentiate from the competition and to draw travelers, who knows? (But then, who’d have thought that JetBlue, Virgin, or Eos would sound enticing. Now if someone came out with “No Stress Air,” we’d book every flight on them.)

Everyone is speculating about the impact of the Open Skies agreement on consumer air travel and pricing, and everyone has a different opinion. As the Chinese saying goes: “May you live in interesting times.”

Image courtesy British Airways

Monday, January 07, 2008

Record Number of U.S. Passports Issued in 2007 – So What?

American travelers, especially those who travel abroad experiencing other cultures, are often embarrassed by the few numbers of fellow citizens holding passports. But there was some hope this past year. The Associated Press reported that, “The State Department issued a record 18.4 million passports in fiscal year 2007, compared to 12.1 million in 2006. Thirty percent of Americans now hold passports, up from 27%.” Unfortunately this enhancement was mostly in recognition of new passport requirements for North American travel, not that our country is finally looking past the “fear factor” of other peoples and to the wonders and enjoyment of the world beyond. According to the same report, Americans are expected to travel closer to home over the coming year because the dollar is so weak overseas.

Postcard from Bermuda, early 1900s.

Friday, January 04, 2008

New U.S. – China Air Routes

China is set to become the world's most visited tourist destination, and U.S. airlines are jumping on the route bandwagon. Announced so far, new China service from the U.S. is scheduled to include:

Spring 2008
Delta – Atlanta to Shanghai
United – San Francisco to Guangzhou

March 2009
US Air – Philadelphia to Beijing
American – Chicago to Beijing
Continental – New York (Newark) to Shanghai
Northwest – Detroit to Shanghai

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Still More On Batteries

Well, it looks like TSA has finally figured it out. Batteries are OK in carry-on bags, but not checked. Here's the direct quote now from the TSA website:
"Keep batteries and equipment with you, or in carry-on baggage - not in your checked baggage!"

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

More Battery Confusion

Honestly, we don’t have a clue about the battery issue. (See our previous entry about lithium batteries.) In it’s infinite wisdom the government continues to contradict itself.

First, we present a direct quote from the TSA’s website (our emphasis in bold).

“Under the new DOT rule, lithium batteries are allowed in checked baggage under one of the following conditions:
The batteries must be in their original containers.
The battery terminals must not exposed (for example placing tape over the ends of the batteries).
The batteries are installed in a device.
The batteries are enclosed by themselves in a plastic bag.”

Second, two direct quotes from different sections of the DOT’s website (bold emphasis is from the DOT copy).

“Pack spare batteries in carry-on baggage.”
You may not pack a spare lithium battery in your checked baggage.”

If anyone out there is smarter than us and can figure this out, we’d love to hear from you.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Airport Lounges

We’re not ones to throw needless money at travel expenses. We’d rather save $500 on airfare so we can spend that much more on food, wine, or shopping at our destination. Yet even though we’re not road warriors, we’ve been eyeing airport lounges more and more. We see them as a way to reduce our travel stress, in the same way that a slightly higher-priced, premium-economy ticket may be worth it. For us, in today’s travel environment, stress-free travel is far more important than saving a small amount on the ticket price.

Since we’re not elite-level fliers on any airline, we’ve been looking into the Priority Pass program, which allows access to “over 500 airport VIP lounges in 90 countries and over 275 cities.” Priority Pass has different price options, but the least expensive two options are $99 per year and $27 per visit (with an additional $27 per guest); and a $249 plan which offers 10 free visits (but still $27 per guest).

Then, we wondered how to evaluate airport lounges themselves. Of course, there are plenty of “best airport lounge” surveys in the media, but the site LoungeGuide.net offers a wiki-type review forum of more than 507 world lounges. This is exactly what is needed for Priority Pass members wondering if while at Chicago O’Hare it’s better to spring for the Northwest, Continental, Delta, or Swiss lounges. (In general, we’d be inclined to vote for a foreign carrier’s lounge, but unfortunately the LoungeGuide site hasn’t yet reviewed the Swiss lounge.) Of course, proximity to your gate and the airline you’re on may influence your lounge choice even more than lounge amenities.