Is it Safe to Travel to … ?

With the ongoing terrorist events each year, some of our clients are always asking, “Is it safe for me to travel to (insert destination here)? The broad answer is no place on earth is completely safe, including your own home. Terrorism and has been with us for centuries and will not be going away. My feeling is that if we stop doing the things we planned to do in our ordinary lives, then the terrorists win. This blog was written on December 8, 2015 and revised in late 2017. There will be other terrorist events in the future. That is a given. But let me give you a little perspective. Did you know that there are between 8000 and 13000 airplanes in the air on this day right now? They are all landing safely, or you would hear about the one that did not. Perhaps a few times in the year a plane crashes somewhere in the world, rarely but sometimes due to terrorism, so your chances of a safe flight are nearly 100% every time you fly. And your odds of being involved in any terrorism event are less than those who travel by air today.

In Paris, if you had been at the Bataclan when the shooting happened, there were more people who survived than were killed or wounded. And if you were in Paris at the time of all the attacks, there were 10.5 million people in Paris and the surrounding suburbs who were not attacked. If you asked me today, would I go to Las Vegas, Orlando, London, Paris or San Bernardino, I would say yes without hesitation and I would bring my family. I’d do it even if I were going there a day after the terrible event.

You might think those words coming from the owner of a travel agency are self serving. So let me give you one more piece of evidence that my views are not just because I am in travel. Before I owned a travel agency, and after the 9/11 event, I had to make a decision. Our family had purchased air and hotel in the summer for a trip to NYC for 2001 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. We had purchased tickets to the Rockettes Christmas show and Lion King. So we had to make a decision. Do we go to NYC on that trip? You might not recall this now, but there was talk of the terrorists doing something in NYC over Thanksgiving. We decided to go and I took the whole family with me, just 7 weeks after 9/11. Yes it was somber to see the damage and the memorials. But we still had a marvelous time and we were there supporting the businesses that were hurting due to the lack of travelers. As a traveler to NYC for decades, I saw a kinder, gentler NY. I am really glad we went. I took the family back to NYC in 2016 and the 9/11 memorial visit was more meaningful, due to our trip in 2001.

I have been traveling for more than 50 years. I had nearly 2 million miles on Northwest, and I have more than a million on Delta. My wife and I were in Greece and Turkey in 2015 during the financial and refugee crisis. Although we had taken extra money as a precaution, I never saw a line at an ATM the entire time I was there. I never saw a crowd of refugees, though I know they were there on islands we did not plan to visit. I will continue to travel but I will always be prepared with advance knowledge from the US State department. And I use common sense because besides the terrorists, you might encounter a scam artist or petty thief, and they are more likely to be your encounter than with a terrorist.

We recommend that anyone who wants to travel internationally, should review the travel comments on the US Department of State website for safety and security information. Being informed is the best defense. Go to this link for safety information by destination.

http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country.html

We also recommend you enroll in the STEP program. See the details on the web link above.

As travel agency staff, we cannot fully answer the question of “Is it safe for you to travel?” All we can do is provide the most accurate, up to date information, and it is up to you to make an informed decision. And I hope you continue to travel.

10 Ways Travelers Are Getting Scammed and How to Prevent Them

No one likes to get scammed. Unfortunately, there are crooks out there trying to scam people out of their hard earned money every day. The travelers are not immune to this, and often they get taken because they do not posess the knowledge a resident of the destination might have. Here is a list of 10 scams that you might encounter, and how to avoid them.

  1. The “You have won a free vacation” call, mail or email. These come in all sorts of different ways. Perhaps it is a free cruise, free air tickets. Sometimes you get a travel product for free but have to listen to a hard sell timeshare presentation for hours. Or maybe you are told just give them your credit card in advance for incidentals or processing fees and find out there never was a trip.  Or perhaps you need to call a long distance number where you are on hold until the caller has racked up commission from your long distance call. Bottom line is …. if it sounds too good to be true, 9999 out of 10000 times it is a scam and you should avoid it.
  2. The “pizza delivery” scam. You just got into your hotel room. Slipped under the door is an offer for pizza with an attractive price, delivered to your door. You call and give them your credit card number and details, only to find out that the ad was fake, and now the crook is ordering things using your credit card. If the offer looks attractive, check them out on the Internet, or ask the front desk.
  3. The “fake hotel desk clerk” scam. You get into your room. The phone rings and it is someone claiming to be the front desk person who says your CC did not go through and that he needs to reverify CC details. Again, the call is not from the desk. Offer to come down in person to see the front desk clerk instead. Don’t break the rule of giving  out sensitive financial information over the phone to someone you do not know. Ever.
  4.  The “timeshare scam”. A person comes up to you at a travel destination and offers you an attractive freebie. Perhaps it is a tour, or tickets to a show. All you have to do is attend a short 1 hour presentation about a timeshare. The presentation is a high pressure sales pitch that can last for hours. These sales people are paid high commissions and will do everything possible to get you to sign up. And it is never one hour long!
  5.  The fake review scam. Trip Advisor, Yelp and similar sites have reviews by the public. Very outrageous ones are usually reported by the visitors and the site will take them down. But sometimes the review is more subtle. Sometimes the owner will paint a very flattering picture of a trip and sometimes a disgruntled traveler will leave a very negative review that is not truthful. That’s not to say that these sites are worthless, its just that you cannot expect all reviews to be truthful.
  6. The taxi dispatcher scam. In some airports, you will be greeted by someone who will offer you a taxi ride or a cheap ride to your hotel. They usually stand right at the exit door, and get to you before you see the real taxi and ground transportation booths. They are usually illegal unlicensed drivers who will charge you more than the regular ground transportation, In some cases, travelers have been robbed. Always look for the permanent ground transporation desks, kiosks. Do not fall for someone who just comes up to you and offers transportation, especially before you get to the ground transport outside.
  7. The corporate fax discount travel scam. We get this on our fax machine about once a week. The fax indicates that our HR department is offering discounts on travel at many different locations for $99 or $149 per person. Often with a second free trip thrown it. These are similar to the scams mentioned in number 1 above. We do not have an HR department and it certainly did not come from anyone in our company.
  8. The $299 cruise to the Bahamas scam.  If you bite on one of these, you will get a cruise over to a low cost hotel in the Bahamas where you will stay for 2-3 nights. You will be transported on a very old ship, where almost nothing is free, and returned the same way. Again, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is a scam.
  9. Crooked Taxi driver. This is one that occurs in almost any city. The meter is broken, the route you want to take is blocked, or some other excuse, taking you for a longer ride than necessary. Or they tell you that your hotel is closed. Here knowledge is power. Find out what it should cost to travel to your destination. The taxi starters, or information boards at the airport may help here. Also, check traffic on your phone if you have that option. Check the status of your hotel by phone as well.
  10. Fake WiFi. We all love to get our free WiFi whenever we travel, but criminals love to get signals from travelers, especially ones who send their ID and password for mobile banking, email, etc. First of all, don’t use public WiFi for anything sensitive. And just avoid free in the open WiFi in general. When visiting, look for a restaurant or similar place with WIFI that is protected by passwords.

These are the top SCAMs that travelers are being hit with this year. They do change from time to time, so you need to be on your best guard. Another great source of specific information on traveler scams comes from the US Government. Check out travel.state.gov and select the country you are traveling to. There will be excellent information on what to be aware of. Armed with good information, you can minimize the potential of being scammed by a criminal and putting a damper on your trip.

What scams have you run into? Let us know in the comments below.

Real ID and Minnesota

NOTE: THIS IS AN UPDATE TO THE BLOG ABOUT MN DRIVERS LICENSES OCTOBER 2017

The Department of Homeland Security will implement its final phase of REAL ID requirements for travelers that board domestic air flights or cruises from/to US only ports on January 22, 2018. When phase 4 is implemented, only passports, Global Entry ID  or REAL ID drivers licenses will be proper identification for boarding. Minnesota does not have a REAL ID compliant drivers license, along a few other US states/territories. At the present time, Minnesota has been granted another extension which will allow MN drivers licenses that are non compliant to board domestic planes until October 10, 2018. Since MN and several other states have been granted extensions, there might be extensions granted in the future, but we  do not know for sure.

Once this finalized and you are beyond that date, you can no longer use your standard MN drivers license as proof of identity to get on a plane or take a cruise to US only ports. If you have a passport, or your Global Entry ID card, your good to go. If you have one of the enhanced MN drivers licenses, or a license from most other states, you are also able to travel. If not, and you do not have another acceptable document, you will be denied boarding. Minnesota does have an enhanced drivers license version that costs $15 more, but few have this despite the new requirements.

Minnesota has now passed an act to meet the requirements of the DHS Real ID requirements. The state is in the process of getting their offices ready for the new requirements, and some offices have that capability.

Until that is completed for all offices,  if you are a traveling Minnesotan without a passport, Global Entry ID or enhanced drivers license, you might want to consider getting the enhanced MN drivers license if your license is up for renewal before the state changes the regular drivers license standards. Standard MN drivers licenses for those over 21 are valid for 4 years, so you would have an issue boarding domestic flights in the future with the standard MN license if another extension is not granted.

If you are a US legal resident, sign up for the Global Entry program.  See my blog for information on how to apply for PreCheck or Global Entry. You will be able to use the Global Entry card to board domestic flights. And it is good for 5 years.

If you need to obtain an enhanced Minnesota drivers license, go to this link to learn more.

Have a question or comment on this? Please leave a comment below. Thanks.

12 Personal Safety Tips While Traveling

Schilling Travel and the travel partners we use have the highest priority on traveler safety. No one can guarantee your safety when you travel, but travel safety knowledge can help to protect you.   Traveling today is much safer than it was even 20 years ago. Airline, hotel, rail, ship safety standards have been put in place to maximize traveler safety. You have heard it before, you are safer traveling on a airplane, train or ship than you are traveling in a car from your home. Medical knowledge is greater, and there are strict requirements for vaccinations needed in the countries you plan to travel in. Weather forecasting and planning by travel companies is used to minimize danger to travelers due to the weather. And there is ample up to date information about political activity that might interrupt your vacation.

Do you know how to minimize chances of  trip interruptions or medical problems? We do. Do you know the latest information on the safety of the region you plan to travel to? We do. Are you aware of the typical weather problems you might encounter during the time of your trip? We do. Do you know where to register with the US government when traveling to a foreign land? We do. This is all part of the service we give our clients.

Here are a few of the recommendations that we have to minimize the problems you might encounter on the road. (Updated February 2018).

1. Always check your flight status before heading to the airport to reduce your waiting time or give you extra time to reschedule.

2. Carry over the counter and prescription medicines with you and do not pack into checked luggage. Be sure to pack over the counter items such as sun block, pain relief, insect repellent, anti histamine, anti diarrhea, and needed prescription medicines, and enough for an extra day or two if you get delayed. Its also a good idea to carry water with you,picked up after being screened for travel.

3. Register with the US state departments STEP program https://step.state.gov/step/ if you plan to travel outside the US.

4. Rid your wallet or purse of extra credit cards, gift cards, identification that is not needed on the trip, and store at home.

5. Confirm that your government ID and your transportation documents exactly match for the name and birth date.

6. Split up your cash into at least two different locations in case of loss, and do not flash cash in pubic.

7. Know where you are going at all times, and enough about the area you are in to avoid higher crime areas. Be wary of strangers who come up to you and ask if you dropped your wallet (so they can see you check your location), or want to take your picture with your smart phone (so they can steal it.)

8. Bring a complete list of all of your medical insurance, doctor and pharmacy phone numbers, and a list of what medicines and dosages you take.

9. If you keep all of your information in your tablet, computer, or smartphone, please keep a paper list of important information for your trip in case your digital device is broken, lost or stolen.

10. Check the weather forecast for the locations you plan to visit, including any airport stopovers to be aware of suitable clothing and any potential for weather delays that could affect your journey.

11. In areas where terrorism is common, do not wear clothing that identifies you as an American, and avoid demonstrations, and high traffic areas with minimal security. Be on the lookout for unattended packages and luggage, and report if found.

12. Be wary of your surroundings when in places with large groups of people and always know where you would go in the event of any possible type of emergency.

If you follow these steps, this will help to minimize any potential problems while traveling. Road warriors and seasoned travelers, do you have other suggestions? Please post them in the comments below. We’ll keep this post and comments alive for at least a year or two. Thanks and safe travels.