KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HEALTH

What health-related steps should I take before I go?

About two months before your trip, schedule an appointment with your doctor or a travel-medicine specialist. You may need to update your vaccines or get a vaccination you've not had before. Why so early? Some vaccines take time before they become effective.

How do I know what I need?

You can find out which vaccines and drugs are recommended or required for your destination at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site (cdc.gov / travel / default.aspx).

What if I get sick abroad?

Join the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (iamat.org), a nonprofit organization that offers referrals to physicians and other medical practitioners who speak English and have trained in North America or Europe. Membership is free, but donations are welcome. Many times, the U.S. Embassy or the concierge at your hotel can recommend doctors.

Do I get free health care?

The short answer is no. Health care abroad is not guaranteed to be free, but in many countries it is cheaper than in the U.S. Before you set foot on a plane, check with your health care insurer to see what your policy will cover. Many policies don't cover emergency or evacuation costs abroad, and Medicare and Medicaid programs do not pay for medical services outside the U.S. But you can buy policies to cover emergency treatment and evacuation while you are traveling.

What if I die abroad?

Planning will make it easier for your loved ones to handle your death abroad. The State Department can assist your family in explaining how to bring your body back to the U.S. or hasten the process, but it won't foot the bill. Consular officials recommend you register your itinerary and emergency contacts with the State Department at https: / / travelregistration.state.gov.

Is it safe to drink the water outside the U.S.?

It depends on where you are going. For the most part, Europe, Canada and other developed nations treat their tap water. But if you are unsure, take steps to ensure you have safe drinking water. Boiling water for at least a minute will kill bacteria, viruses and parasites. Bottled water is the next best alternative, but make sure the seal has not been broken before you drink it.

Should I buy insurance?

First, find out what your health insurance policy will cover. Then evaluate the risks of your trip, what you are doing and where you are going. If you are doing something adventurous where you may risk life and limb, -- white-water rafting in Nepal or climbing Mount Everest -- you may want to consider travel health insurance.

I have to take prescription medicines daily. Are there rules about traveling with medicines?

The Transportation Security Administration allows liquid prescription medications and some over-the-counter liquids if they are necessary for your disability or medical condition. You must declare them to the TSA officer, and you may have to take your medications out of your carry-on to show the TSA agent. While you are traveling with medications, keep them in the original prescription bottles or containers. For more information, go to tsa.gov.

Can I bring back prescriptions I buy abroad?

Don't assume because a drug is sold in another country that it is legal in the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration tells travelers to avoid buying drugs abroad.

Vani Rangachar writes for the Los Angeles Times.

PLANNING

What should I do first -- book my airfare or my hotel?

Don't book either until you check out both or have a travel agent check them for you. If you're planning to attend a major event, such as the Kentucky Derby in Louisville or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, finding a suitable hotel room at a price you can afford is usually the more difficult task. Even if your journey isn't connected to a celebration or popular season, do some homework before you buy. You never can tell when a giant convention might suck up all the hotel rooms in town.

Where can I get good sources of free information?

Tourist boards and bureaus are the most reliable sources of free information. They'll send you a brochure, or you can go online to check out places to go, things to do and where to stay. Look for wording that indicates you've accessed the official state or national tourist board, though. Some Web sites are nothing more than paid advertisements that hype merchants who have paid for a listing. Another good place to find reliable information is The Sun: There is an online list of names and phone numbers of hotel groups, cruise lines, railway companies and other free sources of information. Go to baltimoresun.com / sourcebook.

What about tour books or guides?

Guidebooks are an easily transportable way to keep a lot of information close at hand. Browse your nearest bookstore and find a guidebook that works for you. Don't load yourself down with too many books. That's weight you don't need in your suitcase or carry-on bag.

Speaking of organization, how do I sort out my travel information?

Label a file folder for the planned trip (such as "Yosemite Vacation"), then stash information in it as you compile it. Everything will be in the same place. Fill it with maps, tourist information, airline, hotel and car rental information. Or you can use one of the new programs for smart phones, downloadable from pocketexpress.com or worldmatelive.com, to keep your contact info, confirmation numbers and flight schedules for you.

What about a road trip? Any tips?

Unless you're a spur-of-the-moment traveler, you'll probably want to map out your route in advance. This is particularly important during summer, Christmas and spring break, when hotel rooms might be at a premium. Members of AAA can request a TripTik that maps out the best routes and warns of construction and detours. Mapquest.com is a helpful Web site for mapping out your route and estimating travel time under normal driving conditions.

Rosemary McClure writes for the Los Angeles Times.

LUGGAGE

How likely is it that my luggage will get lost?

It's hard to believe, but the odds are slim that you will not get your luggage. In October 2007, U.S. carriers combined had an average of 5.3 reports of lost, mishandled or damaged luggage per 1,000 passengers.

How can I improve the odds that my luggage will arrive at my destination?

Arrive at the airport early enough to give baggage crews and screeners time to process your bags. Also, put your name and cell-phone number on a tag on the outside and inside of the bags. Place a copy of your travel itinerary inside. Remove any old airline tags.

What about connecting flights?

The chances that luggage will go astray increase when you have to change planes. Avoid scheduling tight connections; leave at least two hours between flights.

What happens when my luggage doesn't get to my destination?

An agent at the baggage office will try to track your luggage using a computer, searching for the electronically scanned tag attached to your bag. If that doesn't work, airline workers will physically look for the bag around the terminal. You will be given a claim number and a phone number to call to receive updates on your luggage.

How can I help the airlines find my bag?

Take a photo of your luggage and give a copy to the agent at the lost luggage office.

If my bags are lost, how do I request reimbursement for the contents?

Before you leave the airport, fill out a lost luggage form from your airline. Make a copy of the form before turning it in to an airline representative. If, after a time, the airlines declare your luggage lost, you must fill out a claim with more detailed information about the contents.

How can I make sure I am reimbursed for everything I've lost?

Before your trip, make a list of the exact contents of the bag, including brand names and clothes sizes to better identify your property.

How much will the airlines reimburse me for lost luggage?

Airlines can invoke a cap of $3,000 for lost luggage per traveler for domestic and international flights. If you think the contents of your luggage are worth more, you might be able to buy "excess valuation," which will increase the carrier's liability.

What if I find my checked bags have been opened?

The Transportation Security Administration is required to leave a note in your luggage if its agents have opened it. If there is no note, check to see whether anything is missing and, if so, file a claim with the airline and the TSA.

How do I keep someone else from accidentally taking my bag off the luggage carousel?

Any colored band, ribbon or sticker on your luggage will help differentiate it from the others. Also, make sure you keep the checked-luggage tag that corresponds with your bags.

Do I check a musical instrument or carry it onboard?

If the instrument meets the size limits of your airline, you can carry it onboard. If the instrument is larger, you must either check the instrument or pay for an extra seat. If the instrument is delicate, make sure it is in a hard-shell case.

Hugo Martin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

FLYING

What can't I take on a plane?

Beside the obvious (explosives and weapons), the government forbids dozens of items. Different rules apply to checked and carry-on bags. For a full list, go to the Transportation Security Administration's Web site (tsa.gov) and click on "SimpliFLY." Do not wrap gifts because TSA inspectors may need to unwrap them.

What is the latest no-no?

Since Jan. 1, lithium batteries have been banned from checked luggage unless they are installed in electronic equipment, such as cameras. However, some small, loose batteries can be carried aboard if they are packed in plastic bags or are in the original packaging. For details, go to safetra vel.dot.gov.

What about liquids?

They are allowed in checked baggage but strictly limited in carry-ons. You can take aboard liquids and gels in 3-ounce or smaller bottles (by volume), providing they all fit inside a quart-sized, clear, plastic, zip-top bag. Exceptions include medications, baby formula and food, breast milk and juice, which you can bring aboard in "reasonable quantities," the TSA says on its Web site.

Are the rules the same everywhere?

No. Each country is free to set its own rules. Check with your airline.

How much luggage can I take?

That depends on the airline. Typically in the U.S., you can take one bag and a personal item, such as a purse or briefcase, as carry-ons. And if you check more than two bags or they weigh more than 50 pounds each, you may be charged excess baggage fees.

Am I still limited to one carry-on item in Britain?

In certain cases, yes. It depends on which airport and airline you're using. The rules are gradually being loosened. For updates, contact your airline or go to baa.com (the company that operates Heathrow and seven other major British airports) or www.dft.gov.uk (Britain's Department for Transport).

What should I wear when flying?

Comfortable clothing. Avoid laced boots or other footwear that will be hard to take off at checkpoints. Remove coats, sweaters and belts with large buckles and put them in provided bins before going through security.

How should I pack?

Entire books have been written on this topic. A couple of pointers: To ease your trip through security, pack your belongings neatly in layers, not in a jumble, so they can be seen on X-rays. The TSA's Web site says that "seemingly innocent items can actually appear to be potential threats in an X-ray image, simply by the way they're packed."

How do I get the lowest airfare?

Book far ahead and shop around. For most simple domestic tickets, do the research on the Internet. Useful Web sites (there are dozens) include smartertravel.com, which rounds up daily deals; sidestep.com, which searches scores of Web sites; priceline.com, where you can bid on airfares (as well as hotels and car rentals); hotwire.com, with an array of deal strategies; and airfarewatchdog.com, which sends e-mail alerts on low fares. For complicated or foreign itineraries, use a travel agent. You'll pay a fee, but you may save time and money.

What's the best way to buy a ticket?

Generally, on an airline's Web site. Fares are often lower, and you'll save on service fees, too.

How do I get the best seat?

Choose it far ahead and study the aircraft. A popular Web site for advice is seatguru.com, which rates seat positions on window views, recline capability, proximity to the lavatory and other factors.

What happens if I get bumped?

You may be eligible for what's called "denied boarding compensation" of up to $400, plus the value of your air ticket. The amount depends on how long you're delayed. In the future, you may receive even more money because the federal government has proposed increasing the limit.

Where can I find out about my rights as a flier?

The U.S. Department of Transportation offers an online guide called "Fly-Rights," with information on denied boarding and other topics. You can find the guide at airconsumer.ost.dot.gov / publications / flyrights.htm.

Do my frequent-flier miles have an expiration date?

Usually they do. Eighteen months to two years are typical. You can often keep your miles "alive" by making a small purchase from one of the airline's partners. Contact your airline for details.

Jane Engle writes for the Los Angeles Times.

CRUISES

Can you cruise if you're pregnant?

Many cruise lines don't want you on board if you are or will be as little as 24 weeks into your pregnancy during the cruise. They're concerned about pre-term labor. Although ships are equipped to deal with medical emergencies, an early delivery requires specialized care that most ships simply aren't prepared to provide. Do I need a passport to cruise to Mexico or the Caribbean?

Not yet. But you will be better off having one. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which includes a requirement that you have a passport for such travel, is in effect for anyone flying back from Mexico or the Caribbean, but the requirement for land and sea travelers has been postponed until June 2009, so technically you do not need one. Think, however, about what you would do in case of an emergency that requires you to fly back. Do I really have to tip everyone on the ship?

No. In theory, you don't have to tip anyone. But these folks work hard, so if you have enough money to take a cruise, you should have enough money to show your appreciation. Do whatever feels right to you, but don't be chintzy. Drinks are really expensive, so why can't I bring liquor on board?

Because you will deprive the ship of one of its sources of revenue. Some lines are very strict about bringing liquor on board; others will let you have a celebratory bottle of champagne. Check with the line. Sometimes ships offer an unlimited soft-drink refill for a set price at the beginning of a cruise. Is that a good deal?

If you're a big soda drinker, it is a comfortable way to indulge your thirst without worrying about that ever-escalating bar tab. Whether it's a deal depends on how much you consume in a day, of course, and the length of the cruise. I've generally found the longer the cruise, the better the deal. Should I take one of the cruise line's shore excursions or arrange my own?

The safe thing to do is to stay with the line's excursions; these operators are vetted by the cruise lines, generally, and will get you back to the ship on time (or the ship will know it's running late and often will hold the cruise). On the other hand, the ship's excursions can be pricey, and sometimes you can do better by booking ashore or merely hiring a driver and going it alone. Why can't I get my money back if a ship misses a port call?

Each ship's passenger contract has a bit of wiggle room, allowing it to subtract a port call or substitute another one. What's the best way to get a bargain?

Find a travel agent who specializes in cruises and knows your tastes and will alert you to specials and deals. Also, consider the off-season. How far in advance should I arrive at my port of embarkation?

My rule of thumb is 24 hours for every 3,000 miles that your port of embarkation is from wherever you're starting from. It does add to the cost of your trip, but you'll have less anxiety about missing the ship. Plus if your luggage is mishandled, it's more likely to catch up with you before you sail. Do I need a lot of cash on a cruise?

Probably not. Most everything can be put on a credit card, which is, of course, only a stand-in for cash. Never put a cruise vacation on a credit card that you're going to pay off over time. It will cost you way more than such a trip is worth.

Catharine Hamm writes for the Los Angeles Times.

MONEY

What's the catch to using debit and credit cards in foreign countries?

Credit cards usually return several percentage points better than exchanging cash or travelers' checks. But keep in mind that when you use your card abroad -- either credit or debit -- you might get stuck with a 3 percent currency-conversion or "foreign-transaction fee" on your statement. And when you withdraw from an ATM, you probably will face a fee of as much as $5, or 1 percent to 3 percent of the withdrawal or both. The devil is in the details, which vary by bank. The dollar is weak against the euro and the pound. Where can Americans get a foreign-exchange break?

Try Latin America. Mexico's exchange rate hasn't changed much in the past three years -- it still hovers at about 11 pesos per dollar. As you look farther south, Costa Rica and Argentina are also worth a thought. We'll probably just eat fast food on the road, so how much does a burger cost in Reykjavik, Iceland?

The Economist magazine's July Big Mac Index -- constructed to show how prices on the street vary from straight exchange-rate economics -- found that a burger priced at $3.41 in the U.S. was going for as little as the equivalent of $1.45 in China, $1.68 in Egypt and $1.84 in Ukraine.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, that burger was fetching $4.01 in Britain, $4.17 in the euro-using countries, $5.20 in Switzerland and $7.61 in Iceland (where Reykjavik is the capital). I've won a lottery. What's the fastest way to elegantly rid myself of all this money?

Well, you could throw it out in the street. Or you could stay at an Amanresorts hotel. That ultra-luxe 20-hotel chain just won top ranking from a new Zagat guide, but good luck getting into one of its properties, whether in Wyoming or Sri Lanka, for less than $500 a night.

Still have money left? OK. Be sure to take all three meals every day in restaurants. Especially hotel restaurants. Every family is different, but if you can reduce your restaurant exposure to one meal a day -- maybe by booking a room with a kitchenette -- you might save $10 per person per day, maybe more. How do I know whether a company selling travel is legitimate?

There's no perfect way, but you can make sure it gives street and Web addresses. You could call and try to speak with a person, and be honest about your hesitation. You could make the booking through a travel agent (most of whom belong to the American Society of Travel Agents), who will probably charge you a fee but ought to be able to steer you away from shady deals.

You could check for an entry in ASTA's buyers' guide at astabuyers guide.com.

Also, if a merchant won't take payment by credit card, walk away.

Christopher Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Safety

How can I avoid identity theft while traveling?

Identity theft experts suggest putting only your name and cell-phone number on your luggage. Also, don't leave your airline ticket stub lying around. The stub can tell a thief your name and the dates you will be away from home.

What if I'm the victim of a crime abroad?

Contact the local police and the Bureau of Consular Affairs, Overseas Citizens Services, at the nearest U.S. Consulate or Embassy. The bureau can help you file a crime report, recover a lost or stolen passport, contact family or put you in touch with an English-speaking lawyer. Consular duty personnel are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. From the U.S., call 888-407-4747; from overseas, call 202-501-4444.

What should I do if I'm being kidnapped?

If the kidnapping is attempted in public, the U.S. State Department recommends that you make as much noise as possible to draw attention to yourself. If you are forced into a vehicle, try to make mental notes of the route or landmarks during your abduction. Remain calm and try not to antagonize your abductors. Which hotel rooms are the most vulnerable to crime?

Try to avoid checking into ground-floor rooms that open to a pool area or a beach with sliding-glass doors or window access. What should I do after I check into a hotel?

Ask the bellman to open the room, turn lights on and check the room to ensure that it is vacant and ready for your stay. Before dismissing the bellman, always inspect the room's locks. What if I lose my passport?

Before you leave, make copies of your itinerary and passport data and leave them with friends. If you lose your passport, contact the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the nearest U.S. Consulate or Embassy. How should I prepare for a medical emergency?

Carry a list with your blood type, allergies, medical conditions and special requirements. If you have unusual medical conditions, wear a medical alert bracelet. What's the safest way to get from the airport to the hotel?

Try to use a hotel shuttle van to get to and from your hotel. These vans tend to be more reliable and less expensive than taxis. How can I avoid pickpockets?

Pickpockets and other thieves like to strike victims who are using public telephones, waiting in lines or hanging around inside bars and restaurants. Be aware of people around you and keep your valuables in your grasp.

Hugo Martin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Children

What travel documents do children need?

On domestic flights, children younger than 18 do not need identification as long as an accompanying adult can verify their identity. When flying out of the country, consult a travel agent or the tourist office of the country in question about required travel documents such as passports, birth certificates, visas and tourist cards. Does traveling as a single parent present problems at airports and border checkpoints?

Custody issues arise for parents traveling without a spouse. The level of scrutiny, related to concerns over custody cases, varies by country. Check a destination's requirements under "International Travel" at travel.state.gov/passport. Parental authorization can be verified with "travel consent forms" signed by each parent and notarized. Do I need a car seat on a plane?

The Federal Aviation Administration recommends child/infant seats for children weighing less than 40 pounds. By the way, bulkhead seats are great for infants, especially for those diaper changes at 30,000 feet; there's nothing wrong with kids flying in pajamas. But avoid red-eye flights, when everyone will be trying to sleep. Busy gas station and restaurant stops worry me. Any suggestions?

The Automobile Club of Southern California points out that every time you come to a stop, your car turns into a billboard. Out-of-state tags, a rental car and maps, all advertise the arrival of travel-weary tourists. Always lock doors and place expensive items in the trunk. Put maps, guidebooks and other items that hint that you are not a local out of sight. When taking breaks, accompany your children to restrooms. What about sightseeing?

At busy attractions, hold hands with youngsters when walking through crowds. Tell your kids where they should go if they get lost. Repeat the warning not to talk to strangers, other than police and authorities. How do I keep the kids entertained on long trips?

On long plane or car rides with young children, surprise them with new toys and games. Parcel them out as you go, rather than giving them the items all at once. Make sure iPods are full and everyone takes their own chargers. Many parents swear by portable DVD players. What do I do after they're done with those?

To keep kids occupied, also give them each a map at the start of the trip. Include landmarks and possible stops along the way. This lets them keep track of your progress and provides a sneaky lesson in geography. My children get motion sickness. Any suggestions?

Consult your pediatrician before leaving. Several over-the-counter aids and prescription medicines are available to help motion sickness.

Chris Erskine writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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