Monday, May 19, 2014

Travel Tips

Travelers’ Most Common Mistakes And How To Avoid Them
(By Christopher Elliott, Washington Post, 15 May 2014)
The secrets to a hassle-free summer vacation seem simple enough: Keep a checklist. Read the rules, especially if you’re flying. Take photos of your rental car. Don’t make assumptions about your hotel. And remember your paperwork when you’re traveling overseas.  But simple as that sounds, in practice it’s not always that easy.  Let me say right from the outset that I hardly started out as the world’s smartest traveler. But over the past decade and more, I’ve learned, from my own wide-ranging travels and from the many problems I’ve helped resolve for readers, what not to do when you’re on the road.  So what are the most common mistakes that travelers make? And, more important, how do you avoid them? How, in other words, can you vacation like the world’s smartest traveler?

1. Be prepared

Bob McCullough, a sales representative for a cheese company in Hainesport, N.J., admits that he’s a serial procrastinator, so he decided to start packing for a recent trip a full week in advance. He even booked a flight leaving Philadelphia on a Sunday to avoid the Monday crush of business travelers.  “I got to the airport two hours before my flight, found the parking garage pleasantly unpacked, and parked in a spot I had never dreamed of finding on a weekday,” he says. “I opened the trunk and reached in to grab my suitcase — which wasn’t there. I realized then, in shock with a cold sweat building, that I had left my suitcase in its normal pre-staging area of my laundry room.” 

The smartest travelers plan ahead, like McCullough, but they also have a fondness for checklists. Did you pack the right clothes? Remember all the power cords? Is your luggage in the trunk of your car? Lists are your friends. Smart travelers know when to wing it and when not to. Sure, your friends and family might poke fun at you for keeping a list for everything, but they’ll thank you when you’re the only one with a power adapter in France. Travelers who keep lists are far less likely to get into trouble on the road.

2. Read those airline rules

Airline policies can be counterintuitive, even bizarre. For example, a one-way ticket can sometimes cost more than a round-trip ticket on the same plane. A change fee can exceed the actual value of a ticket. Also, “non-refundable” means non-refundable, except when it doesn’t.  Confused yet? If it’s any consolation, even airline employees sometimes get mixed up about their own rules. Don’t laugh, I’ve seen it.  Kelly Hayes-Raitt remembers seeing an unbeatable deal for a flight from Los Angeles to Tampa, Fla. But when she arrived at the airport, she noticed her itinerary. “The plane landed in Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and New Orleans before finally arriving in Tampa,” remembers the writer from Santa Monica, Calif. “I still groan when I think of how stupid I was.” 

Based on the cases I’ve mediated, my best advice is to familiarize yourself with the always-changing, often Byzantine rules developed by the airline industry — rules that are often created for the sole purpose of “protecting” an airline’s revenue or, to put it in terms that everyone else can understand, to separate you from your money.  They may make about as much sense as a coast-to-coast flight with four stops, but you — and you alone — are responsible for knowing the rules.

3. Take photos of your rental car

Anna Arreglado didn’t do that when she recently rented a car in Bardonia, N.Y. “My mistake,” says Arreglado, who works for a pharmaceutical company in Ridgefield, Conn. Sure enough, the car rental company came after her, insisting that she’d damaged the vehicle. She couldn’t prove that she’d returned the car unharmed. It was her word against the company’s.  Fortunately, Arreglado reads this column and knew how to fight back. She disputed the claim in writing and copied her state attorney general on the correspondence. “Within an hour of sending my e-mail, I got the case dropped,” she says.

Listen up, campers: Take pictures of your cars before and after your rental. Some customers allege that car rental companies have built a profitable business around charging you big bucks for small damage, and the only way to avoid a repair bill is to show an “after” image of your undented car. That, and maybe having the e-mail address of your attorney general.  Actually, the takeaway from Arreglado’s story applies to more than rental cars. Sometimes, a brief, polite e-mail to any travel company will get the resolution you want — if you copy the right people.

4. Assume nothing about your hotel

No segment of the travel industry — except perhaps the airlines — profits more from our collective ignorance than hotels. They would like you to think that they’re the only lodging option in town, but they’re not. Today’s accommodations cover the spectrum, from glamping to vacation rentals. Don’t lock yourself into a traditional hotel or resort, at least not without first shopping around. You might be able to find a bargain on with a better location and fewer hassles. 

Travelers make other assumptions about their accommodations that aren’t necessarily true, too. For example, you’d imagine that the room rate you’re quoted is the room rate you’ll actually pay, maybe not including sales taxes.  But when Tom Alderman recently tried to book a room at his favorite casino hotel in Las Vegas, he was broadsided by a mandatory $14-per-night “resort” fee, which supposedly covered in-room wireless Internet access, use of the fitness center and “printing of boarding passes.” He was particularly outraged because the resort had repeatedly promised on its Web site to “never” charge a resort fee, like other Vegas resorts. “I’ll never stay there again,” says Alderman, a retired documentary filmmaker.  Resort fees are normally disclosed just before you push the “book” button, so don’t thoughtlessly click through. If you see a fee you don’t like, stop what you’re doing and look elsewhere for a room.

5. Don’t forget the paperwork

Having the right visas and permits and an updated passport is your responsibility, no two ways about it. That’s a difficult message for many travelers to hear. They rely on the advice of a travel agent or what’s posted on a Web site and believe (incorrectly) that those third parties should reimburse them when something goes wrong. This is especially common in the case of cruises, where a birth certificate, instead of a passport, is often enough to board a ship.  The consequences can be heartbreaking. A worried mom from Sacramento recently contacted me because her daughter and son-in-law, en route to their honeymoon in St. Lucia, had been stopped at the airport and denied boarding. The reason? The bride’s passport was due to expire soon — too soon for her to be allowed into the country. Some countries require your passport to be valid for six months from the date of your entry. An alert travel agent might have caught the problem, but now it was too late. And without travel insurance, the entire trip would be lost. “Can this trip be salvaged?” the mom wrote to me, with only hours before the vacation was to have begun. Sadly, it couldn’t be.  Point is, the most common travel mistakes are easily avoided with a little planning and by taking common-sense precautions. It looks easy, and sometimes it is easy. But the truth is, in many cases, there’s often a lot more to it, and questions arise. And that’s what this column and I are here for.

Summer 2014: Best Vacation Escape Routes For Drivers Leaving The D.C. Area
(By Robert Thomson, Washington Post, 16 May 2014)

The Memorial Day weekend marks the traditional beginning of the summer travel season, and we’re back with our annual guide of problematic routes and roadways you might want to avoid in your rush to get out of the Washington region.  The 95 Express Lanes project is on a fast track, but that probably means summer vacationers won’t be going anywhere fast when they drive through that construction zone on Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia.  Of all the compass points travelers will follow on their getaways from the D.C. area in 2014, the most difficult — for the second summer in a row — will be due south. The express lanes project, begun in late summer 2012, is building “29 miles in 29 months,” said Walter J. Lewis III, project director for Fluor-Lane 95, the construction company.  The 2013 work included construction of nine bridges, sometimes forcing weekend detours on I-95. Through the rest of this year, the remaining work will include frequent weekend shutdowns of the HOV lanes in the middle of the interstate, limiting its capacity to handle vacation traffic.  While that slow ride is likely to be the biggest challenge at the beginning and end of long trips, it won’t be the only one. Here’s a look at what’s ahead along the main summer escape routes.

Northeast corridor

Classic route: I-95 to I-295, across the Delaware Memorial Bridge to the New Jersey Turnpike to northern New Jersey approaches to New York (about 227 miles).

Alternatives: Consider I-95 to I-695, just before Baltimore, to I-83 to York, Pa., and Harrisburg, Pa., then I-81 to I-78. Options include staying on I-78 across New Jersey toward New York or taking a more northerly course: following Route 22 just before Allentown, Pa., to Route 33 to I-80 across the top of New Jersey.

Or take Route 50 across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, follow Route 301 to Route 896 (Churchtown/Boyds Corner roads) to Route 1 (toll) or Route 13. From there, drivers can reach I-295 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which connects with the New Jersey Turnpike.  For those who want to vacation while they travel, consider driving about 120 miles from the District to take the 80-minute ferry ride from Lewes, Del., to Cape May, N.J. Reservations recommended: 800-643-3779 or

Travel tips: North of Baltimore on I-95, the Maryland House rest area has reopened, but 14 miles beyond that, the Chesapeake House in North East, Md., is now closed for reconstruction.

Approaching the Newark, Del., toll plaza, the two left lanes will take you to the highway-speed E-ZPass toll readers. Tune your radio to WTMC (1380 AM) for traffic reports.

Before leaving home, check the Delaware Department of Transportation Web site at for traffic conditions.

The widening of the New Jersey Turnpike continues between interchanges 6 and 9 in the central part of the state, but construction may end late this year. Tune to WKXW (101.5 FM) for New Jersey traffic reports.

New York’s Tappan Zee Bridge remains open as construction begins on a replacement span to take I-87/287 over the Hudson River.

Deep Creek Lake

Classic route: I-270 to I-70 west to I-68 west to Exit 14A at Keysers Ridge, Md., then follow Route 219 south (about 180 miles).

Alternatives: Between Frederick and Route 219, try portions of Route 144 and Alternate 40, which weave along with the interstates. Much of that route is the Historic National Road. Take it to enjoy a different drive to Western Maryland rather than to save time. Maryland travel maps, including a map of scenic byways, are available at ­

Travel tips: Maryland’s major roads — including I-270, I-70, and Routes 15 and 40 — pass through a bottleneck at Frederick. Try to avoid starting your trip between 1 and 8 p.m. Fridays.

Between school closing and Labor Day, the roads around Deep Creek Lake can get very crowded. There are peaceful state parks with cabins along the way west, including New Germany and Herrington Manor. At Frederick, vacationers could swing north on Route 15 to cabins at Cunningham Falls State Park in Thurmont.

Travelers can make reservations on the Department of Natural Resources Web site at ­

The Maryland State Highway Administration has some highway repair projects in the western part of the state this summer, but they are unlikely to severely affect traffic flow during the peak travel times.

Eastern Shore

Classic route: Route 50 east to Ocean City (about 150 miles).

Alternative: There really isn’t a good highway alternative to the Ocean Gateway (Route 50). Around Wye Mills, Md., Route 404 branches east from Route 50 and heads for Rehoboth Beach on the Delaware shore, but it’s narrow and crowded.

Along the Route 50 corridor, there are some short breaks, including Route 662 at Wye Mills. Approaching the shore, Route 90 (Ocean City Expressway) provides an alternative way into the city, at 62nd Street.

Travel tips: The best Bay Bridge travel times for summer weekend getaways are Thursday and Friday before 10 a.m. and after 10 p.m.; Saturday before 7 a.m. and after 5 p.m.; and Sunday before 10 a.m. and after 10 p.m. The regular car toll for the bridge is $6, paid eastbound.

Headlight use is required at all times on the bridge. At peak periods, the westbound span is sometimes realigned for two-way traffic. In that case, the five lanes on the left side of the toll plaza are directed to that span. Drivers who want an E-ZPass Only lane for the exclusively eastbound span should use toll lanes 6 or 9.

Maryland offers traffic information for the bridge at To get information about your entire route, dial 511 from within the state and use the voice-recognition system, or use the Web site

Outer Banks

Classic route: I-95 south, to I-295 south, to I-64 east, to I-664 south, then I-64 to Exit 292 for Chesapeake Expressway/I-464/Route 17. Then keep left to continue to the Chesapeake Expressway (Route 168) and take Nags Head/Great Bridge Exit 291B to routes 168 and 158 and the Outer Banks (about 270 miles to Kitty Hawk, N.C.).

Alternatives: South of Fredericksburg, some I-95 drivers pick up Route 17 south at Exit 126 and take it to I-64 in the Hampton Roads area. Others take the I-295 bypass around Richmond into the Petersburg area, then take Route 460 east into Hampton Roads.

Drivers on the east side of the D.C. region could take Route 301, crossing the Potomac River on the Nice Bridge ($6 car toll collected southbound), then connect with Route 17 south. Drivers starting southbound trips from west of the D.C. area may avoid some of the I-95 congestion by taking Routes 29 and 17 to the Fredericksburg area.

Travel tips: I-95 traffic on Friday and Sunday afternoons can be stop and go between the District and Fredericksburg. Traffic volume is very high, plus there’s the 95 Express Lanes construction.

There will be lane closings on I-95 during off-peak hours and overnights, plus those weekend closings of the HOV lanes. Also watch for many construction vehicles turning into and out of the work areas.

Get information about Virginia traffic conditions through the 511 system. On the Web, it’s at You can also call 511 from any phone in Virginia.


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