Ten Things I Don’t Travel Without

Whenever I travel, I always have that feeling that I forgot something as soon I check in at the airport. Often times, whatever I left behind wasn’t really that important and can easily be replaced with a quick trip to the store at my destination.

But sometimes I head to places where a convenience store just isn’t on the itinerary.

These days, whether I’m headed on a leisure trip somewhere in the U.S. or off on a TDY assignment in Southwest Asia, there are the top ten things that I do not travel without.

1. A small medicine kit which includes essentials like Imodium, Mylanta, Melaleuca Sustain Sport (to replenish electrolytes and keep me hydrated!) and painkillers.  

You never know where you’ll be when your gastrointestinal system betrays you.  The last thing I want to deal with is how and where to find the remedy!

2. An airplane neck pillow.

Even Leo uses one!

I fly economy, sometimes premium economy, and it will be a long time before we will see lie-flat seats in the main cabin.  Which means lots of preventable kinks in necks. If Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t too good for a neck pillow, neither am I!

3. Wet Ones Hand Wipes. Hand Sanitizer may kill bacteria, but it doesn’t clean your hands and actually remove any debris or residue you might have on them from touching doors, subway handles, clothes, etc. I don’t go anywhere without ’em. ANYWHERE.

4. Melaleuca Revive Fabric Freshener Spray.  Think Febreeze, but with serious staying power.  After a few days on the road and limited clothes in rotation, this liquid miracle keeps my clothes smelling fresh and clean. I’ve even used it on jeans and a sweater which reeked of a grassy substance (not mine!) after a Jay-Z concert; it was like they had just came out of the wash! As an added bonus, it also acts as a wrinkle remover. I just pour what I need into a travel spray bottle and off I go.

5. A scarf. A large pashmina-type scarf can come in handy for all kinds of occasions.  It can be draped around the shoulders for warmth in the evening, used as a shoulder/head covering when visiting certain houses of worship, worn around the neck for style, used as a bag cover, worn as a belt…the possibilities are pretty much endless.

6. Dry Shampoo.  Washing your hair every day can be drying and hard on your hair, and in between washes I like to make sure that my hair looks and feels clean as if it were first washed.  This dry shampoo from Oscar Blandi is a staple in my travel bag.  It’s paraben-free and I LOVE that it smells like lemons!

7. Ear plugs. I cannot over-emphasize this one. Not only are they great to block out some of the ambient sound in the main cabin of the airplane (or the awful snorer two rows over), but they are also great to mute out noise at my hotel. Whether its street noise, calls to prayer, or just the settling of the building, I’m more apt to hear everything the first couple of nights. These are so small and for a few dollars are worth every penny when it comes to preserving my sanity.

8. Extra canvas tote bag/reusable shopping bag.  It’s not uncommon to pick up a few extra goodies when you’re on vacation.  When it’s time to come home, I use the extra bag as a carry-on with any extra stuff that won’t fit into my checked luggage.

9. My iPad mini.  Using he Nook app from Barnes and Noble, I can keep current on my reading without lugging four books around, which takes up valuable space in my carry-on. I also use the iPad to store photos which frees up space on my iPhone which acts as my primary camera.  On shorter trips, I prefer to just travel with the iPad mini and leave the MacBook at home.

10. A handful of Melaleuca Attain Bars.  Not only do they make great snacks on the road to curb hunger, the bars are also super easy to pack.  I often stuff a few in my carry-on and stash the rest in the nooks and crannies of my checked bag.  They’re packed with protein to keep me going when my next meal is still a few hours away, and are far more nutritional than munching on a sugar-packed granola bar.

 Do any of these make your “must pack list?”

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What did Delta Really Change in their SkyMiles Program?

Frequent fliers woke up to some interesting news this week.

Starting in 2015, Delta Skymiles will change how its fliers earn redeemable reward miles.  Instead of the traditional model which allows passengers to earn miles based on the number of miles flown, or:

600 miles flown = 600 redeemable miles earned
(plus any premiums depending on your Skymile status)

the new model rewards passengers with 5 miles for every dollar spent, for example:

$600 for a r/t ticket = 3000 redeemable miles earned

If you have silver status or higher with Delta, your reward mileage conversion increases by the following multipliers:

  • 7 for silver;
  • 8 for gold;
  • 9 for platinum; and
  • 11 for medallion

So what does this mean to the everyday traveler? Probably not much.

Remember, this change to Delta’s mileage program doesn’t change the way you earn qualified miles (or frequent flyer status), only on the way you earn redeemable reward miles.

Did you catch that?

If not, you’re not alone.

Let’s say you want to plan a trip to Paris from Washington Dulles in September.  An economy class ticket costs $1282; a business class ticket costs $5058.

Assuming this passenger has no status, the economy class ticket would earn about 7722 miles r/t; the business flier 11,583 miles (with 50% bonus miles).

Based on the 2015 plan, the economy flier would earn 6410 miles; the business flier 25290 (with 50% bonus miles).

So while the redeemable reward miles earned are greater under the 2015 plan, in order to earn Silver status, both would earn the same number of qualifying miles (based on 7722 miles of actual distance flown) from this flight.

In fact, the biggest change has to do with the dollar component now required to earn status.  Not only do passengers need to fly the required 25,000 qualifying miles to earn silver status, but the 2015 plan also requires customers to spend a minimum amount on Delta tickets for each level ($2500 for silver, $5000 for gold, etc.)

I have to believe that Delta didn’t make this confusing on purpose; but it took me nearly half an hour to really decipher what changed and what didn’t.  I consider myself a very educated person, but it took some time to find the right link to tie together all the figures and tables and conversion charts on the website.

At the end of the day, all you really need to know is this:

Delta’s 2015 Skymiles Plan essentially rewards customers who spend more per ticket, or buy many tickets over the course of time.  This means more miles redeemed on Delta and partner flights or other affiliated services.  It’s a great ploy to build brand loyalty.

Redeemable miles are not the same as qualifying miles which will still be calculated on actual distance flown.

Status will be achieved through a combination of qualifying miles + minimum qualifying dollars spent.

Let’s take one more example of a last minute business traveler who’s jetting from Washington Dulles to L.A. for a meeting.

A last minute economy seat costs $1108, a business seat about $2000; the distance is the same at 4756.  Starting in 2015, the economy flier will earn about 5500 redeemable miles, the business flier 10,000.

HOWEVER, assuming they both have no status they BOTH earn 4756 qualifying miles with the business flier earning a 50% bonus.

Got it?

Why Is My Flight Cancelled?

Because “the Cancellator” said so, that’s why.

So dubbed by American Airlines employees, it’s a computer system comprised of programs and predictive models that manages which planes take off and which are grounded.  Bill Saporito of Time magazine said that factors include “…who’s flying, where they’re going, where are the jets, and where are the pilots.”

Who’s less likely to be a victim of the Cancellator? Those flying internationally, or domestic flights with crews connecting to an international flight.

Flights with no connections or those flying to major hubs are more likely to be grounded by the Cancellator because of the ability to rebook those flights.

You really can’t make this stuff up!

Check out the original story on Yahoo! Travel News here.

Should I Buy Travel Insurance?

A couple of years ago I booked a couple on a summer trip to Italy.  On the day of departure, their outbound flight was canceled.  They were promptly booked on the next day’s flight at no additional charge; however, they lost an entire day of their vacation.  The hotel was non-refundable as was the excursion they missed on day two.  Fortunately, they purchased travel insurance when they booked their trip and we were able to file a claim to recover the costs of the missed hotel night and the excursion.  Without it, they would not have been so lucky.

I like to tell this story because it illustrates the value of travel insurance.  For many, the assumption is that travel insurance is just extended medical coverage, and for healthy travelers this would seem redundant to their current plan.  Travel insurance, in reality, has very little to do with medical coverage (although most good policies include emergency medical services) and is really a catch all to cover most events that could go wrong during a vacation.  A sample policy that I might offer to my clients usually consists of the following:

–          Trip Cancellation up to 100% of insured cost;
–          Trip Interruption up to 150% of insured cost;
–          Trip Delay up to $1000;
–          Lost or delayed baggage up to $1000;
–          Pet care boarding if you are delayed from returning home for medical reasons up to $300;
–          Emergency Medical Expenses up to $50,000;
–          Emergency Medical Evacuation or Repatriation up to $500,000;
–          Travel Accident Dismemberment or Death up to $10,000; and
–          24-Hr Worldwide Emergency Assistance

Some clients think that their medical coverage provides out-of-network care overseas, but that is usually limited to bigger cities. In the middle of a crisis, the ambulance will likely take you to the closest emergency room which may or may not be affiliated with your home medical coverage.

And even if by some lucky miracle the ER is affiliated with your home medical coverage, I can guarantee with absolute certainty that any emergency medical evacuation costs are NOT covered.  A medical evac or repatriation can cost upwards of $300,000.  When a plan – such as the one above – might cost an extra $180 it’s hard to think of a reason NOT to have the coverage on hand just in case.

It’s also very important to really understand what the basic coverage includes and doesn’t include.  Trip cancellation, for example, is usually limited to very specific circumstances such as (but not limited to): disabling sickness or injury of the traveling party; financial default of an airline, cruise line or tour operator; inclement weather; and the destination being devastated by flood, fire, volcano, or tornado.

Travel insurance also comes with optional coverage which I may recommend to clients depending on the nature of their trip.  Such optional coverages include:

–          Cancel for ANY reason;
–          Sports coverage;
–          Renters Collision Insurance; and
–          Increased limits to Medical and Baggage Coverage

Again, it’s important to know the limits of the coverage especially as it pertains to sports.  The coverage was designed for “low-risk” activities like skiing or even skydiving (in some cases), and may not cover accidents or injuries caused by other sports such as jet skiing or rapelling.  Even more so, if you were negligent or reckless in a covered sport, your claim for accident or injury will be denied.

I don’t go on any trip without travel insurance.  With more and more flights being delayed and cancelled, I want to know that I’ll be taken care of since the airlines no longer compensate you for anything less than a mechanical failure.  I’m also rather accident and sick-prone, and if I were to ever come down with a sudden case of malaria or fall and break my ankle, I never have to think twice about seeking medical assistance.

There are a number of great providers out there that offer quality plans in terms of coverages, limits, and premium price.  My personal preference is Travel Guard and Travel Insured.  (Travel insurance policies offered by airlines and cruise lines offer very different exclusions and waivers and it’s extremely critical that you understand what those are if you are considering purchasing through those carriers.) Both Travel Guard and Travel Insured offer a variety of plans to best suit the nature of your trip.  A basic worldwide plan, with optional cancel for any reason, costs on average about $250.  For an 8-day trip to Italy that costs about $5,500, that works out to about $30 a day.

At the top of this page, I’ve included a link to Travel Guard if you’re interested in seeing what a plan may cost for your upcoming vacation.  I encourage you to check it out and to bookmark this page to return to when you’re ready to purchase your travel insurance policy!

And now I’ll leave you with this great infographic which compares Marvin and Mark’s vacation and how travel insurance can really pay off in just a few unfortunate, but very realistic, scenarios:

infographics-900TI

Have you ever purchased travel insurance?  
Now that you’ve learned more about it, will you in the future?

Cruise Control

If you’re considering an alternative to an urban city vacation, a cruise might be a great vacation choice for you.

My husband and I recently went on our first cruise.  I had long been a cruise skeptic.  I didn’t understand how hopping from port to port each day, spending an average of 6 hours at each port, was enough time to see and do everything…to really get to know a place!  I spent 5 days in Rome and still didn’t see everything.

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The Celebrity Summit at Port

So we went jumped in head first and went on a 7-night cruise throughout the Southern Caribbean.  It was definitely one of the best and most stress-free vacations I’ve ever been on!  With over 2,000 guests on board, we never felt like the ship was crowded.  We didn’t have to worry about packing, unpacking and changing hotel rooms while waking up in a different city/port of call each morning.

We were kept very busy by the variety of on-board amenities, activities, and entertainment options.  After spending all day at port sightseeing on our own or as part of an organized excursion, we would freshen up and enjoy a coffee or beer while watching our favorite singer/songwriter on board in the late afternoon before dinner. Others would lounge by the pool.  Some would nap.  The beauty of cruising is you can do whatever you want whenever you want.

Before we cruised, we gathered some GREAT tips from a variety of sources, including websites such as cruisecritic.com and from veteran cruisers.  All of this greatly enhanced our experience and helped us make the most of our time at sea.

TIPS FOR FIRST TIME CRUISERS

Spend a little time learning about what to do at Port — No matter how big or small the port of call is (say, Dominica vs Venice) you want to make the most of your time.  A little research ahead of time will help you learn if there are any must-see attractions and what shore excursions are offered (and if they’re offered within the time the ship docks and departs). Waiting until the last minute could result in an excursion being sold out.

Gratuity is expected — Tipping is expected for almost everything on a cruise.  If you didn’t upgrade to a premium drink package (the most basic of which usually includes soft drinks and alcohol up to a certain dollar threshold), your drink bills will automatically include tips. If you don’t pre-pay your dining and room tips up front when you book your cruise, you will be asked to leave cash on the last day before you disembark.

The suggested tip rate is about $12/day/person.

Anytime Dining/My Time Dining May Require Reservations for Prime Time Seating — Not hungry at 6pm, but don’t want to wait until 8pm?  Most cruise ships today offer some version of “anytime dining” which allows you to dine at your leisure typically between 6pm-10pm.  But there’s a catch.  With more cruise guests opting for freedom from fixed dining times and dinner companions they could do without, you will find yourself waiting for a table if you haven’t reserved a table for your preferred dining time.

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Typical Oceanview Stateroom

Mind the Dress Code — Most ships have an evening dress code.  While it’s beach casual during the day throughout the ship, dinner in the dining rooms or ship restaurants will be more “resort casual.”  Flip flops and shorts are often not allowed.  For those that opt not to participate in the formal nights, guests can head to the buffet and enjoy a meal there. We opted to forgo the formal nights, but there were those on board that truly enjoyed the formality of the evening.  Don’t ruin it for them.

Bring Cash — Even though most of your on-ship purchases will be settled using a common card (and linked back to a credit card), cash will come in handy to pay for services or souvenirs at port.  Some places may not accept credit card, and there are some places where you might not want to hand over a credit card.  Use discretion and be prepared.

Post-Cruise Motion Sickness — It wasn’t until after the cruise that I experience motion sickness.  Apparently, it’s very common for your brain to still think it’s on the ship.  It took a few days for my body to regain its equilibrium.

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Lobster and Champagne Lunch during our Catamaran Excursion in Grenada

As first time cruisers, we were amused and amazed at everything, particularly how relaxing it was to not be on a schedule, not feel bound to museum opening times, and not feel pressured to see famous monuments if we didn’t want to.  I can’t wait until our next one!

Do you cruise?
What are some of your favorite tips?