Monday, November 26, 2007

Three hours, please.

When you fly domestically, arriving 90 minutes early is a best practice even though an hour is usually enough time. For an international flight from an American airport, two hours is the norm. Should your travel plans include Israel, though, be very clear on this: you should arrive at the airport no less than three hours before your flight.

Israel takes airport security very seriously. Whether that's because the country has been officially at war with a dozen Arab nations for its entire history or because Yasser Arafat basically invented modern terrorism, I couldn't say. The specific impetus is unimportant anyway; what matters is that you, as a traveler expecting to fly out of Ben-Gurion International Airport, will be given a closer look if you arrive, say, two and a half hours before your flight.

Oh, and were you just visiting for the weekend? That's very suspicious unto itself. Who would fly from America to Israel just to spend two days exploring Tel Aviv--even if the Lonely Planet guide says that's enough time to be worthwhile?

Wait... is that a Bahraini stamp in your passport? Now you're really going to get some in-depth scrutiny.

Readers might correctly understand at this point that my weekend trip to Tel Aviv ended with just such a discussion with Israeli airport security. I managed to arouse every possible suspicion that one might have with the exceptions of being an Arab or a Muslim; if one or both had been true, I'm not sure whether I'd have made my flight!

The depth to which I was questioned really did surprise me:
  • When I told the guards the name of my company, they wanted to see business cards.
  • When I said what I did, they asked me to walk them through a typical audit procedure.
  • When I said I'd taken lots of photos, they had me show them on my camera.
  • When I told them about Spontaneous Tourism, they had me power up my laptop, connect to the (free) airport Wi-Fi, and pull up the book on Amazon.com.
All tolled, I spent about half an hour talking with the security guys and answering their questions. My bag was also scanned twice, at different points by different people (which had nothing to do with my brief stay; that's part of the standard process).

For all that, I found the experience very pleasant. I was treated with the utmost courtesy at all times. They retrieved my boarding pass for me while I was being questioned, to make sure that I'd get to my flight on time (which I did; they had just started boarding when I walked up). And that silly bag of gels and liquids that TSA finds so terrifying? The Israelis--they who have more cause to worry about terrorism than anyone on the planet--didn't need to see it, because they'd done a thorough job of screening me.

But just the same, spare yourself the trouble. If you'll be flying out of Israel, make sure you get to the airport in advance. Three hours, please.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Credit where credit is due

You've searched everywhere to get the lowest fare you could find. Now, you've bought your ticket, and the only thing left to do is take the trip. But did you really get the lowest fare? What if you bought the lowest ticket at the time, but then prices drop?

You might think you're stuck, especially on non-refundable fares. But that's not quite true: most airlines, including six of the seven legacy carriers and a whole bunch of their low-cost competitors, will give you the difference in fares if prices drop after you buy but before you travel. (They're not just doing it to be nice, either; protecting you against fare drops is one way that airlines encourage you to book early, which in turn helps them fill planes.)

Here's how it works:
  • Buy your ticket.
  • Check periodically to see if the price has dropped.
  • Send documentation to the airline and request credit.

At one point, most airlines would give you actual cash rebates for the fare difference. Today, most provide vouchers for use on future flights with them. But that's pretty good, don't you agree?

Of course, up until recently, the challenge was keeping track of ticket prices. After all, the low-fare protections only apply to the same type of ticket, so you need to know the fare basis and compare apples to apples. That's beyond the ability of some people and beyond the attention span of most others.

Enter Yapta.com, which does it for you. Register (for free), enter your airline ticketing information, and let Yapta search the fares for you. When it finds a price drop for the same fare basis, you'll be notified--and Yapta even helps you get the credit to which you're entitled.

It's free money. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Seeing your own backyard

When we think of travel, visions of faraway places come to mind. More often than not, though, we haven't done much exploring in our own hometowns.

Even if you don't live in a large city, odds are that within 100 miles of where you live, there are historic cites, monuments, parks, and attractions that you either haven't seen at all or haven't seen recently. The trick is that you have to approach your local area the same way that you would if it were somewhere that you were visiting. Do some research online. Ask for ideas of what's worth seeing. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

Besides helping you get back in touch with your community and its heritage, traveling locally has another big advantage: it's cheap. Travel cost is minimal. And while if you want the full immersion experience, you can stay in a local boutique hotel, it will be enough for most people to avoid the fast food chains and look for local cuisine.

Remember, being a traveler is less about destination than mindset. So even if Paris has to wait until you can save up for the plane ticket, don't put off your adventures. Be a Spontaneous Tourist at home.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Departure Taxes

Everyone pays airport taxes. Most people don't realize it, though, because these taxes are generally included in ticket prices. On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, though, I was reminded in a very direct fashion that some countries--Argentina among them, but also Costa Rica and dozens of other destinations across the developing world--prefer to collect their departure taxes themselves at the airport.

In most cases, the tax is $20-30 USD. What makes it fascinating is that it's almost always paid in dollars (or euros) rather than the local currency. This decision brings stable currency into government coffers but has the implicit impact of making leaving the country a variable expense for the nation's own citizens (who are paid in local currency and not dollars or euros). Handing over my last U.S. $20 bill to pay the tax was an annoyance; for an Argentine with tickets to leave the country, not having $60 AR pesos would've stopped the trip before it even began.

Bottom line: you can't leave without paying the departure tax. That means that you, as a Spontaneous Tourist, should be careful to always have $20-30 USD set aside should you need it at the last minute. Fortunately, in most cases, credit cards are accepted. Happy travels!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Is a United-Delta merger in the works?

According to the Associated Press, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines are in talks regarding a possible merger. Were it to occur, the merger of these two legacy carriers--respectively the second- and third-largest in the U.S.--would create a company larger and with more routes than American Airlines, which currently holds the #1 spot for total size among U.S. airlines. Rumor also has it that the new company would retain the United brand name.

The possibility of a UAL-Delta merger is bizarre for several reasons, not the least of which is that Delta vehemently fended off an attempted purchase by U.S. Airways earlier this year on the grounds that it was well positioned to succeed as an independent company. Delta was also bankrupt at the time, and has since emerged from bankrupcty with new labor contracts that included dumping its pension obligations on the Government; why were those concessions granted if only to pave the way for a merger?

For travelers, of course, these political questions are less important than some others:
  • Delta is a member of SkyTeam, while United is a member of the Star Alliance; would the new airline retain the Star Alliance membership along with the United name?


  • Would the "new United" set its top-level elite status at the 100,000-mile level currently used for United 1K flyers, or would it adopt 75,000 miles like Delta's Platinum Medallion level?


  • United currently offers regional and systemwide E-upgrades in addition to mileage upgrades; Delta doesn't have these. Would the "new United" continue to offer these non-mileage upgrades to elite members?

Of course, we don't know. And it may never happen anyway; remember, in late 2006, there was talk about a United-Continental merger that never went anywhere. Keep an eye on this, though. There are far too many airlines in the United States for the industry's own good, and if it isn't UAL-Delta, one thing is certain: consolidation is coming.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Gifts for Travelers!

A few days ago, the AP published Gifts for Globetrotters, a list of items recommended by travel experts as being perfect for frequent travelers. The story was posted on CNN.com and in dozens of other places, and included four of my recommendations.

Since the format didn't include links to the products that I recommended, though, I decided that some follow-up information was in order. Here's the inside scoop on what I recommended and why.
  • External Power for Laptop Computers. Long flights drain laptop batteries. You can get more life out of your portable computer by turning down the brightness of the screen, but isn't it hard enough to see the screen on a plane? A better solution is an NCharge VNC-130 external battery pack by Valence. Sleek and very thin, the NCharge is fairly heavy (because it is a battery) but provides up to 8 hours of AC-equivalent power. Specifying your laptop model ensures you'll get the right power connector. ($300; order direct from Valence.)

  • Privacy Filter for Laptop Screens. Maybe you're in First Class, or maybe you have a middle seat in Coach. Either way, do you really want the person next to you to see what's on your laptop screen? The privacy filter by 3M has you (and your laptop) covered! Choose the right size for your laptop, install it in seconds, and anyone looking at your laptop from more than 15 degrees off-center will see nothing but a black screen--but you'll barely notice the difference looking at it head-on. ($50; widely available.)

  • Ultraviolet Water Purifier. If you've traveled outside of the developed world, you're well aware of the need to treat local water with skepticism. Buying bottled water, though, can be both expensive and frustrating--and if you pick up a local brand, you may well be paying a premium for the same water you'd find in the tap anyway. Instead, bring along a SteriPEN Adventurer UV water purifier by Hydro-Photon.

    Designed with backpackers in mind, the SteriPEN is a lightweight device about the size of a sheathed knife that comes with a belt pouch. Turn it on, dip it into clear water, and swirl gently. It turns itself off when its cycle finishes, and you can drink the water knowing that it's damaged or destroyed "in excess of 99.9999% of bacteria, 99.99% of viruses and 99.9% protozoa." I brought one with me to Mexico and drank purified tap water the entire time that was there with no ill effects. ($130; available from REI and other vendors.)

  • Ultra-Thin Travel Shaver. Gentlemen who are otherwise clean-shaven will immediately appreciate the annoyance of getting of a flight looking overgrown and haggard. Turbulence makes bladed razors a bad choice for places, though, and most electric razors are bulky. The ES518N by Panasonic is not well named and offers just one blade but stands out with good reason: it's about the size of a credit card and only half an inch thick, and while it won't replace your favorite bathroom razor at home, you can't beat the convenience while you're traveling. ($60; available at Brookstone and online.)

Hope these ideas make it easier for you to shop for the frequent travelers in your life.