Are you your own worst enemy?

Travel writer, Christopher Elliott, started his own consumer advocacy website in 1997. On a daily basis, Elliott receives dozens of emails that have added up to tens of thousands over the years. If you want help from his team of advocates, one is asked to fill out a long form that helps them evaluate the problem and work through the issues that have the traveler feeling wronged.

Elliot and his team, have divided complaints into those that can be handled on their own, with his guidelines, as either resolve on their own or avoid the problem completely. More complicated ones can use his advocacy services.

Over the years, Elliot says, he has become a “very careful traveler. When I read nothing but horror stories all day long, you get this sense, you’re glad that it wasn’t you.”. “When my people read about the horrible things that happen, inevitably we get to the point where we realize they could have avoided it by using a travel agent.”

Here are Elliot’s top 6 to do's, to avoid, stress and trouble and have a happy, before, during and after vacation.

1. Take the time to fully understand what you are booking


“Just because you can look up a fare and book it, that doesn’t mean you understand the airlines’ complex fare rules. The travel industry has its own rules and sense of logic, and most people don’t understand it,” he said, noting airline ticketing and refund rules and hotel prepay restrictions. “It’s all illogical and even airline customer service departments have a hard time explaining it.” A common problem is “’the airline spelled my name wrong on my tickets.’ Airline websites only print out what you, the consumer, put in. In most cases, if you catch your mistake within 24 hours, you can get it corrected with no charge. It’s amazing how many people do not review their confirmations.

2. Purchase travel insurance


“Even just thinking about travel insurance isn’t common,” said Elliott, who believes half the complaints he and his staff review could have been avoided if the consumer simply had purchased travel insurance. “Everyone thinks, ‘My vacation is going to be fine. My connections will be fine.’ And then they end up losing everything and contact me to get help. They send threatening letters to the local newspaper, or ‘7 On Your Side,’ and that can sometimes work. But it would be so much easier if they just purchased travel insurance,”

3. Do your due diligence


“Read the fine print before you purchase. Read it twice, and click once,” Elliott said. “If you had taken the time to read everything, you might not even have purchased the product.”

4. Plan for the unexpected


“People are overly optimistic when it comes to travel. “They think planes take off on time and that hotel rooms will be ready when they arrive. All of their dinner reservations will go flawlessly,” he said. “The people who contact me for help thought nothing extraordinary would happen, but of course, something did. Travelers need to hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”

5. Pack your manners with everything else


“Often you will find people are their own worst enemy. When something goes wrong, they make it worse by their rudeness. A customer service representative is a human being, and if you treat that person, who probably isn’t happy about the events surrounding your misfortune either, politely, you may never need to contact me,” he said. “But so many people have an event on the first day of their trip, they get really bent out of shape trying to fix the problem, and they end up ruining the rest of their vacation. If they had packed their manners, they likely would have had a much better trip.”

6. Book through a travel agent


“Most of the people who contact me think they can DIY their way through their vacation,” he said. “I tell them, next time, find yourself a good travel agent, not just any agent. You’ll keep yourself out of trouble that way. A good travel advisor tells the clients everything I do, so the consumer can make an educated decision and protect themselves.”


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What Would Goldilocks Do?

Which is the best seat on a plane? You can check Seat Guru to find out a lot about the physical seat but which seat is just right? What Would Goldilocks Do? 

Since you can’t try every seat on the plane until you find the one that is just right. Here are a few tips to help you choose which seat might be just right for you. Each of us has a different preference, so there is no one right seat, just one seat that is right for you.

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If sleep is what you want, then window seats are for you.

The best window seats for sleeping are on the left side in the middle section. Those seats are often off-center, providing more space to lay your head. The middle of an aircraft is farthest from the bathroom lines or noisy galleys; a bit quieter.

Quiet or warmth are what you want, then choose an aisle seat.

Window seats are cold. You can feel a significant difference in temperature through the side of the plane. Window seats are also louder.

Need room to spread out to work?

Hoping for the open middle seat? The further back you sit, the more likely to have an open seat. However, now a day, planes are flying at near capacity. It’s a risk, you might not get that open middle seat and have to deal with the bathroom line and galley, to boot.

Next time you book your flight on line and you are about to choose your seat, think of what Goldilocks would do. Then pick the one that’s just right.


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Uh Oh, What's United up to now?

United Airline Plane

Any change to a frequent flier program is usually bad for the consumer; all those points and miles you've accrued become harder and harder to use. United Airlines just announced a significant shift in its frequent flier program—though experts say it could be worse. Personally I have found United to be one of the most difficult programs to use miles. How can they make it worse? Read on.

The U.S.'s fourth-largest airline is adding a "dynamic pricing model" to some of its award tickets. That means the number of miles you'll need for an award flight won't always be a set number for the same route. The new "Every Day Awards" will replace the "Standard Awards" in the airline's Mileage-Plus program. It won’t affect the lowest "Saver" awards. The change will go into effect for flights happening after November 1.

Experts say that using miles for flights like United's Every Day Awards is poor value compared to premium-class redemptions and Saver-style awards. United's change also brings minor increases on certain routes and partner redemptions, such as a round-trip business class ticket to Europe increasing to 120,000 miles from 115,000 miles, and a one-way from Boston to San Francisco increasing from 25,000 miles to 35,000 miles.

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"Come November 1, your United miles will be worth less than today and the dynamic nature of these new Every Day Awards means a step in the direction of redemptions becoming more tied to the cash price of a ticket—or what is called 'revenue based redemption,'" says Dave Grossman, a frequent flier expert. "That's what you have with Southwest and JetBlue where the price is literally tied to the ticket price rather than the award charts we are used to with the legacy airlines."

United’s vice president of digital products and analytics, Praveen Sharma, emphasized that the airline was sticking to a published award chart, despite the change in Every Day Awards.  “Unlike some of our competitors, we will have a published award chart and we’ll stick to the ranges in that award chart,” Sharma told USA Today. “We will not have exceptions.”

The clarification was a shot at Delta Air Lines, which does not publish an award redemption chart; a problem for frequent fliers looking to make the best use of their miles.

"There's now going to be much more room for United to charge more miles when flights are more expensive meaning the miles are worth less," says Grossman.

Despite the changes, Tiffany Funk of One Mile at a Time says the Mileage-Plus update could be worse.

"Saver awards continue to provide the best value for your miles, and rule-buster awards (like Every Day) should be used very sparingly, and ideally only in emergency situations or by folks with no flexibility who have planned on more expensive awards as part of their mileage strategy," says Funk.

United also announced a new fee. If a customer books an award flight and cancels after the flight's departure, the airline will now charge $125 to have the miles redeposited in the customer's account. Most passengers won't have to deal with that, if they cancel the award flight in advance.

Overall, the changes fit in line with the industry's shift in frequent flier redemptions; domestic programs have become less lucrative over time. But according to Funk, while the latest change complicates United's program, they won't have a massive impact for most travelers. "These particular updates don't significantly detract from the Mileage-Plus program as such," says Funk. "I suppose one could argue that there really isn't much left to take away there."

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How to Pick a Travel Agent

Well I’m sure you were searching the Hallmark or Papyrus store for the perfect Travel Agent Day cards to send.  I guess with Mother’s Day there just wasn’t any more room on the card racks. The official day is May 3rd. In honor of this  important Holiday (Do you think the banks will be closed??), I have taken the liberty of reprinting a recent article from the New York Times

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How to Pick a Travel Agent

By Shivani Vora   April 19, 2017

Finding the right travel agent is like finding the right doctor, according to David Kolner, who oversees the travel agent membership program for Virtuoso, a network of more than 15,000 agents globally. “This may sound extreme — after all, they’re only booking your travel — but your leisure time is one of your most valuable assets, so why would you trust just anyone with it?” he said. 

Here, he shares his tips on how to find the perfect agent:

DO YOUR HOMEWORK Finding the right agent requires research. Start by asking friends and relatives for recommendations — if people you trust are happy with their travels, Mr. Kolner said, chances are you will be, too. You can also ask for recommendations on Facebook. You can also check out reviews of agents through a Google or Bing search or sites like Yelp.

FIGURING OUT YOUR NEEDS Do you want someone who is a specialist in a particular destination to assist with planning one specific trip, such as a gorilla trekking adventure in Rwanda? Or are you looking for someone who can help plan your travel for years to come, effectively someone who becomes a specialist in you? These can be the same person, Mr. Kolner said, but knowing what you want from the outset may lead you to a different adviser.

HOW INVOLVED DO YOU WANT TO BE? Some advisers like to plan every aspect of a trip, from booking airfare to making dinner reservations, while some are happy to offer a second opinion about your own research. Some prefer phone interaction, while others are comfortable conversing via email or text. It’s important, Mr. Kolner said, to work with an adviser who matches your travel planning personality. You can find out if advisers are happy to hold your hand or leave you alone by asking them directly. “You’ll find that most are forthcoming about their communication style and travel planning process,” he said.

DON’T BE SCARED OFF BY FEES It’s not uncommon for advisers to charge a fee for their services, which could range from $50 to several hundred dollars, depending on the complexity of the trip. Mr. Kolner said charging fees was a growing practice because advisers spent several hours planning their clients’ trips and would have difficulty making a sustainable living without being compensated for their time. “You are paying for an adviser’s knowledge and for the perks they’re able to score for you,” he said. The extras advisers can get their clients at no cost could include room upgrades, early check-ins and late checkouts at hotels and airport transfers.

Nice to see how the tide is turning back to appreciate the value a travel specialist contributes to their clients travel plans. Yes, You Should Use A Travel Agent, NASDAQ Says, read more http://bit.ly/2pyCAWp 

What can’t you book on Expedia?

Well in, my opinion, there is a lot you shouldn’t book on Expedia; certainly not your dream vacation.  And if your dream vacation is a trip to Cuba, you are out of luck. The commercial airlines are starting to fly to Cuba, but you can’t book on Priceline, Expedia or other on-line booking engines. 

Unregulated travel to Cuba is still banned. The regulations have been loosened a bit and allow for more ways one can legally travel there. U.S. airlines are now flying to Cuba after a 50-year ban, but you can't book these flights on any of the on-line websites. Cuba is one of the hottest travel destination, so why not?

On-line booking engines haven't offered airfares to Cuba because of government requirements for travel there. These regulations have forced airlines to customize their booking pages for Cuba flights. That means programming new language and interfaces to account for the legal attestations travelers must make saying they are eligible to travel to Cuba.

The Treasury Department also requires travel suppliers to keep customer information for at least five years on travel to Cuba. Airlines are doing this, and corporate lawyers are debating whether on-line travel agencies must do the same.

“Three U.S. airlines have begun commercial service, and five more are expected to start by year’s end. Consumer demand is expected to be strong, and U.S. airlines have rushed for access to the island, where only 110 daily flights from the U.S. are allowed. The American Society of Travel Agents estimates at least 2 million Americans would visit by the end of next year if restrictions were lifted,” says Justin Bachman of Bloomberg News.

“So far, though, the big on-line travel companies have eschewed selling those flights. For one thing, it’s not a financial priority: As airlines have dramatically curbed commissions on ticket sales, on-line agencies’ margins from selling airfares have contracted, making lodging far more lucrative,” writes Bachman. 

Eventually, the on-line booking engines will figure things out. It too popular of a destination for them not to be participating.  When that will happen, is anyone’s guess. Cuba is changing rapidly.  If you want to see Cuba while it still retains some of its 1950’s aura, go sooner rather than later.

I have 2 group trips scheduled for 2017, an amazing Dive Cuba trip with master diver Pete Pallotta.  You will dive pristine dive sites and gorgeous coral reefs few Americans have had the privilege to see.

Not a diver? 

Then come with us in May to Meet the People of Havana. 

We had such a fabulous time this past May, we’re offering the experience again. Click here for a video presentation. If you have a small group, I can arrange for a private customized itinerary. Don't miss the opportunity to see Cuba before the massive changes.

Call me, let's make Cuba a reality! 415 931-1945. 

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