Back to school: Travelers need lessons too!

A year is not 365 days — at least not if you're flying.

Craig Meyer discovered that bizarre fact the hard way. He'd booked an airline ticket from Chicago to Nassau, Bahamas, last year but canceled because of health reasons. No problem, American Airlines told him — just pay a change fee, and you'll get a credit for a year.

Meyer, a business owner from Arlington Heights, Ill., thought his year started on the day of his original flight. Not so. It actually began on the day he'd made his reservation.

"When I tried to purchase new ticket, I was told it's too late," he says.

It may be too late for Meyer, but not for you. The clock starts ticking on your one-year credit when you push the "book" button. As students head back to school this fall, you can take a few minutes to educate yourself on the ABCs of travel. True, real travel literacy is the kind of thing you learn as you go, but a little book knowledge can be helpful for your next big trip.

What do you need to know?

Safety first. "You need to be in tune with what's going on around you," says Steven Smith, president of Guardian Defense, a Boca Raton, Fla., company that offers active shooter response training for schools, businesses and law enforcement. "Sometimes, we turn a blind eye to what's happening. But with all the terrorist attacks, Americans are starting to see that they need to pay attention," he adds. You'd be surprised at how few travelers take the time to familiarize themselves with current events in a region they're visiting.

Learn a few basic industry terms. For example, know the airport city codes of your origin and destination airport. They can be tricky, like for passengers flying from Chicago O'Hare (ORD) and Orlando (MCO). How about the difference between a non-stop and direct flight? "A direct flight is one that does not change aircraft but stops en route," explains Lauri Knutson, a travel agent based in Lansing, Mich. "A non-stop flight just takes off and lands with no stops." Tip: The non-stop will save you lots of time and potential hassle.

Call your bank. It can't read your mind — at least not yet. "In order to prevent fraud, many banks will freeze debit or credit cards after a transaction has taken place in a foreign country," says Deb Shaw, the chief operating officer of ForeignExchange.com. "Travelers should inform their bank before they leave the country." That's no idle threat. I've had my card frozen a time or two before I wised up.

Consult a map. You'd be surprised at how many travelers don't bother. No, really. David Capaldi, who runs a Clearwater, Fla.-based tour company, says one of his clients just asked about canceling a trip to Rio. The reason? They'd heard crime was on the upswing in Mexico, which is "right there." It isn't, of course, which suggests these particular clients are not just clueless when it comes to travel, but also geopolitically illiterate. "They said, 'It’s probably dangerous too, so we’re thinking of canceling,'" he says.

Read your insurance policy. Standard travel insurance is filled with "named exclusions" — items that are not covered. A vast majority of travelers don't bother to review them and believe they're covered for any event. They aren't. "I wish travelers had a better understanding of a covered reason for a cancellation and the details of travel insurance," says Christel Shea, a former customer service director for a cruise line. Here's what you need to know: If you want to cancel for any reason, buy the more expensive cancel-for-any-reason policy. Otherwise, study up to learn the exclusions.

Talk the talk. "Travel literacy means at least basic language literacy," says Ellen Jovin, a writer based in New York. Learn a few words in the local language — "please" and "thank you" are a good start — and it will make the entire travel experience a lot smoother. Jovin recommends a grammar book and audio lessons. "You will be able to read signs, get directions, show appreciation, socialize, and feel more connected to all that you see," she adds.

Don't be fooled by fees. Airfares appear to be cheaper than ever, but Ilia Kostov, the chief commercial officer at Amadeus, a reservation system used by airlines, says passengers have to "do their homework."  The increase in so-called à-la-carte services "has added some complexity when it comes to finding the lowest airfares or best choices," he says. That's a nice way of saying that all the fees can add up quickly. Need to check a bag? Get an advance seat assignment? Chances are, they'll cost extra.

Finally, here's my own irreverent travel advice: Expect the worst, but hope for the best.

Assume the price of your airfare, hotel and rental car will conveniently fail to include a "gotcha" fee, assume you'll be delayed or detained, and assume you'll encounter poor service.

None of those things will probably happen, but at least you won't get your hopes up, and you'll be pleasantly surprised when everything runs smoothly.

Three tips for improving your travel literacy

Find a qualified travel advisor. When it comes to expertise, nothing beats a real travel agent. Qualified agents can find good deals and offer insider tips even the experts might not know about. You can find one using the American Society of Travel Agents travel agent finder: asta.org/travelagent.cfm?navItemNumber=671

Sign up for STEP. The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a service offered by the State Department that allows U.S. citizens traveling abroad to register for updates with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. If you need to be evacuated from a potentially dangerous area, this service makes it much easier.

Practice, practice, practice. Most of the best travel skills are learned as you go — so get out there and start practicing. Don't stay home next weekend. Get out there and take a road trip, explore and experience new places. With each adventure, you become a better traveler.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and editor at large for National Geographic Traveler. Contact him at chris@elliott.org or visit elliott.org.


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