The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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Your Travel Questions, My Answers
February 9, 1994 -- Trust me when I tell you that it is relatively easy to play travel expert in print and broadcast media. You know the news, you know who to call to get additional information and you can assimilate and regurgitate a variety of data into a cogent narrative.
It's much harder to answer reader questions. Why? You won't have a clue what they will ask and you have to track down stray bits of information in a hurry.
In other words, you make me work hard for my money. I hope these answers below are sufficient answers to your questions.
Q: Can you explain who regulates tour operators and what a contract should contain?
A: No single government agency specifically regulates tour operators. As with any business, they fall under the broad mandates of state attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission. The U.S. Department of Transportation has limited authority over tours that include airline tickets. But even the Transportation Department urges travelers to pay for packages by credit card because that "provides some degree of protection under fair credit practice laws." And United States Tour Operators Association (212-944-5727) can provide a list of member companies, each of which pledges to meet certain standards. Its free brochure, How to Select a Tour or Vacation Package, includes useful information about tour-package contracts.
Q: Some car-rental firms have special programs that speed and simplify the rental process. Are they worth the annual fees the companies charge?
A: So-called instant-rental programs are primarily designed for frequent business travelers. In the Hertz #1 Club Gold program, for example, a traveler makes a reservation in advance. On arrival at the airport, the traveler is shuttled directly to a car. There are no contracts to sign and no stops at a rental counter. Hertz charges a $50 annual fee for this service. The crux of the instant-rental programs is a master rental agreement that a traveler signs in advance. All rentals during the year are then covered by this agreement, thus eliminating the need for a newly negotiated contract each time you rent.
Q: Is the secret bunker in London where Winston Churchill managed the British Empire during World War II open to the public?
A: The Cabinet War Rooms became an instant tourist magnet when they opened to the public about ten years ago. Just a few steps from the Prime Minister's official residence at No. 10 Downing Street, the subterranean chambers are in much the same condition as they were during the war. They are cramped, extremely modest, a bit shabby and reeking with history and human drama.
Q: I'd like to plan a Greek holiday that includes visits to Athens, Olympia, Santorini and Mykonos. I've tried several travel agents, but they don't seem eager to book tours or give prices. Can you help?
A: Gary Topping of Gulfstream Travel (800-844-6939) says he's not surprised travelers have little luck booking Greece through a travel agent. Many agents, he says, are reluctant to arrange travel there. "Greece as a travel destination has a number of eccentricities, so you must work with a tour company that has a large, on-site presence there," he explains. Topping usually refers his Greece-bound clients to a company called Chat Tours (800-268-1180). "They have the local savvy to make things work in Greece," he says.
Q: When pilots extinguish the "fasten seat belt" signs on a jet, they always tell passengers to keep the belts buckled whenever possible. Is there really a safety reason for keeping your belts fastened even when the sign says otherwise?
A: Yes. Two obvious reasons: unexpected in-flight turbulence or a sudden mechanical failure. Neither would necessarily cause a crash, but either could cause severe pitching and rolling of the aircraft. Such an incident occurred last year when a jet bound for Los Angeles pitched violently and passengers were tossed about the cabin. Two people died and 160 others were injured. The National Transportation Safety Board found there would have been fewer injuries if more passengers were wearing seatbelts. NTSB member Jim Hall raises another point: If we mandate seat-belt use whenever we drive cars, why not require the same level of safety whenever we fly? "If you're in an airplane going five or six times as fast as in an automobile," he says, "it seems like common sense that [seat belts] ought to be required."
Q: How do you get the best rate when exchanging U.S. dollars into a foreign currency?
A: There are no hard-and-fast rules, but here are some basic guidelines. Exchange as few dollars as possible at home since rates overseas are almost always better. Once overseas, local banks usually give better rates than currency exchange shops, the shops usually offer better terms than your hotel's front desk and the hotel is a better deal than currency kiosks at the airport. However, it's always wise to check the conversion rates at all of these outlets before making a major currency exchange. You also can use your personal banking card to obtain foreign currency at an overseas ATM. Although ATM usage fees vary by bank, most are substantially lower than the prevailing exchange rate fees.
Q: Any tips to offer a traveler who suffers from arthritis?
A: Traveling comfortably with arthritis is mostly a matter a common sense, according to the Advil Forum on Health Education, a non-profit organization founded by the manufacturers of the pain medication. The Forum publishes a 20-page pamphlet, Your Passport For Traveling With Arthritis, and it also has produced a videotape seminar distributed to 10,000 senior citizen centers. The pamphlet--and the location of a local senior-citizen center with copies of the video seminar--can be obtained free of charge from: The Advil Forum on Health Education, 1500 Broadway, 25th Floor, Department TA3, New York, NY 10036.
Q: Can travelers really get huge discounts on airfares and hotel rates by posing as travel agents or by purchasing travel-agent credentials?
A: Hotels, airlines and theme parks often extend special discount rates to bone fide travel agents as a way to familiarize agents with the products they sell. Unscrupulous travel agents sometimes issue phony credentials--or, worse, sell bogus identification--to travelers. But negative publicity about the practice in recent months has led airlines and hotels to tighten their rules about travel agent discounts. Although the practice does not violate any law, my advice is to avoid trying to pass yourself off as a travel agent. There's almost always a good deal to be had without resorting to this kind of subterfuge.
Q: We recently booked a low airfare, but when we arrived at the airport we discovered we had reservations on a "public charter" service and not a real airline. What's the difference?
A: A public charter is just that: a charter. Public charter operators do not have their own airplanes or flight crews, they don't issue standard airline tickets and they do not operate scheduled flights. Some public charters have represented themselves as scheduled airlines and several have been fined by the Transportation Department for deceiving passengers. Another large public charter has been charged with a series of financial irregularities. Although it is not foolproof, beware of any air service that does not use the word "Airlines" or "Airways" in its name. If in doubt, ask the carrier before you book.
Q: I never seem to get the hotel rates that I see in ads or read about in newspapers and magazines. Is there some trick to getting the advertised price?
A: The best way to get a rate you've seen is to bypass the chain's central reservation service and call the hotel directly. If the rate has a special name or is part of a particular package, make sure to ask for it by name.
This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.
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