Whether you're scrambling to pull together a Labor Day road trip, pondering a winter getaway or a European journey, here are useful pieces of wisdom.
High prices. Long airport lines. Terrorism.
You’ve got enough to worry about, between making sure your hotel reservations match your arrival dates and ensuring that all your credit cards will work. And now this?
Relax. Here are the most common travel problems and their solutions. Keep this article, slip it into your carry-on and stop worrying.
Q: Is there anything I have to absolutely know about travel as the summer winds down?
A: This summer has been a little different so far. With all that’s going on, travel insiders say doing your homework is more important than ever. That means carefully planning your trip and leaving nothing to chance. Consider travel insurance and a reliable medical evacuation coverage. If you’re crossing an international border, register with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which allows you to receive important information from the U.S. Embassy about safety conditions in your destination and offers a way for the embassy to contact you during an emergency. “Know the area,” says Sheryl Hill, who runs Depart Smart, a nonprofit organization dedicated to safe travel. “Have an emergency plan in case the unthinkable happens.”
Q: How important is my paperwork?
A: It probably has never been more important. The most common screw-ups involve still-valid passports that don’t comply with a country’s validity requirements. For example, if you’re headed for France, your passport must be valid a minimum of six months after you cross the border. Brazil is waiving its tourist-visa requirements for the Olympics, but after Sept. 18, you’ll have to pay for one. “One of the main problems in travel is the unawareness of visa requirements,” says Sergio Merino, founder of Ivisa.com, a visa-processing service.
Q: What should I do about long airport lines, other than showing up three hours early?
A: Unless you’re flying just before or after a major travel holiday or after a terrorism scare, those legendary three-hour lines are unlikely to remain that long, at least in the near term. Keep a close eye on your airport’s website, which issues recommendations for screening times. The only way to be sure you won’t get stuck in one of these ridiculous lines is to give the Transportation Security Administration your money. “Get PreCheck,” says Seth Kaplan, editor of Airline Weekly, a trade publication. Yes, the $85 fee is a lot, but even for an infrequent traveler, it’s a sound investment, he says. “After all, the point of flying is to get somewhere as quickly and painlessly as possible, and PreCheck really does make flying much more of a pleasure again.”
Q: Check or carry on?
A: Check it. Better yet, pack extra-light and buy any items you may need when you get there. Carry-on luggage clogs screening areas and slows down the boarding process, resulting in longer delays. Greg Geronemus, the co-chief executive of smarTours, a New York-based tour operator, says he’s conflicted about that advice, because it only helps the airline make money. “But this summer, it’s not a bad idea to check as much of your luggage as possible,” he adds. It might not cost as much as you think. Southwest Airlines, for example, doesn’t charge for most checked luggage, and if you belong to an airline loyalty program or carry an airline-branded credit card, you might get the luggage fees waived.
Q: Should I worry about the Zika virus?
A: You can worry, but it may not do you much good. The best source for Zika travel information is the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These concerns — what Sarah Lisovich, a senior editor for CIA Medical’s educational blog, calls “Zika anxiety” — are common among travelers. “Those who are pregnant or hoping to become pregnant, and even those just leery of the notorious virus, are avoiding locations that have announced a presence of Zika,” Lisovich says. If you can’t change your travel plans, she says, you can help protect yourself against an infection by using insect repellent, staying indoors as much as possible and wearing clothing that covers the skin.
Q: What can I do about high travel prices?
A: There are ways to get cheap fares. We’ve already seen some summer sales and discounting, so the high travel prices aren’t uniform. The trick may be to stay flexible with your times and dates — and most important, your location. Accommodations at popular summer destinations, such as Maryland’s Eastern Shore, might not be discounted, but if you like to go hiking, you could find a deal in a place like Vail, Colorado. “Eliminate the roadblocks,” says Gracia Larrain, a spokeswoman for Skyscanner.com, a website that offers a set of tools that allows users to set flexible parameters for travel. Among them: an “everywhere” feature, which allows you to search a list of destination options in order of airfare cost, and a “show whole month” option, which lets you to see the best fares for each day of the month.
Q: What three items do I have to pack?
A: Your patience, politeness and sense of humor. You’ll probably get stuck in a line, so you’ll need to keep your cool. Your impeccable manners will ensure that you get the service you deserve and that you don’t needlessly draw attention to yourself and possibly get marked as a target. “And smile,” says Declan Kunkel, a New York theater producer and frequent traveler. Employees, he notes, “have to deal with a lot of troubles. If you can make their day even that much better, they will go to leaps and bounds to help you.”
Q: Any parting advice for someone traveling for Labor Day and beyond?
A: There’s no sugar-coating it: The summer of 2016 has been filled with challenges for travelers. But don’t let that stop you from getting out there. As my colleague Ed Hewitt of Independenttraveler.com would say, “Go anyway.” I can’t think of more appropriate advice.
Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum, elliott.org/forum, or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.