Saturday, September 23, 2006

Hassle-Free Car Rental Guide Part 1: USA

In my years as a travel counselor, I’ve seen more traveler problems with one segment of the travel business than any other: rental cars. In this article, I will share my tips for a hassle-free car rental. I’ve listed the most likely pitfalls for car renting consumers and how to avoid them. In these recommendations, I have assumed that the renter is a U.S. citizen with valid driver license renting in the United States.

MAKING THE RESERVATION - I recommend using an experienced travel agent or travel consultant to make your arrangements. There’s just no substitute for their experience and insight for helping you avoid problems and getting you the best value.

GIVE COMPLETE AND ACCURATE INFORMATION However you reserve, it’s best to provide as much information to your agent or to the rental car company as possible: your age, your flight number (if you’re arriving by plane), how you want to pay, and any frequent traveler number you’d like to earn miles on. Be sure that you give accurate times for pick up and drop off to ensure that the rental location is open when you need it. Tell how many drivers you’d like to include on the rental and provide their information as well.

LOCATION - Don’t assume that the location is at or near an airport if that’s what you request. Be sure to find out exactly where the location is. For example, if you request Newark Airport (EWR) from Alamo Rent A Car, their system defaults to a location 20 minutes away with no shuttle service.

DEBIT CARDS – Credit Cards are almost always required for a rental. Find out what the terms of payment are if you don’t have a credit card or if you have a debit card only. Often, debit cards are not accepted at the time of rental or they’re only allowed in special circumstances that require additional documents to be given: additional ID, proof of return travel etc.

UNDERSTAND THE RATE – Make sure that you understand the rate. Is it daily or weekly? How does it apply to your rental period? Is mileage included? Look for additional charges that may include: taxes, fees, concession charges, frequent flyer charges, and recovery charges. Make sure that you understand how these apply to your rental and get it in writing.

POOR DRIVING RECORD – If you have a poor driving record be advised that car rental companies are routinely checking driver records in states where it’s legal. If you’ve had more than one moving violation in a two year period before the rental or any serious violations like a DUI, find out in advance how they will handle it. The rental companies may refuse to rent the vehicle or charge you a higher rate. Don’t get surprised at the rental counter.

AT THE RENTAL COUNTER – The car reservation shows that you’ve reserved a certain car class at a particular rate. Well, what does that mean? A car class describes vehicles that share certain specific characteristics: compact, automatic transmission, four doors, and air conditioning, for example. You are not guaranteed a particular model or color, but you can always ask at the counter. If there are no more cars available in the car class you’ve reserved you will usually be offered an upgrade to a more expensive car class for the same rate you’ve reserved. If you’re really watching your budget, be careful -- your fuel bill is going to jump significantly if you’re upgraded from a compact car to an SUV. Choose wisely if fuel economy is a big concern; perhaps even ask if you can move down to a smaller car at a lower rate.

PERSONAL INSURANCE AND LIABILITY – The rental agent will ask if you want to add CDW or LDW and additional insurance coverage. Before you choose, be sure that you understand exactly what type of insurance coverage you already that may apply to rental cars. Contact your insurance provider directly and get the information in writing. Some questions to ask: Do I have coverage while driving a rental? What’s my deductible? What vehicle types are covered? (Often vans and trucks are not covered). Are there restrictions on the length or rental? (Rentals longer than two weeks are frequently not covered). Understand that if there’s a mention of “rental car” on your policy document it most likely refers to rental car charges incurred while having your personal vehicle repaired, not coverage while driving a rental, so ask.

CREDIT CARD INSURANCE – Most major credit cards offer some type of insurance coverage to cardholders if they use the credit card to reserve and pay for a rental car. Coverage varies widely from card to card, call your card issuer and get the details in writing. Ask the same questions as for personal insurance (above) and ask if the insurance is primary or secondary. Secondary coverage requires that you have your own personal coverage.

If you have a debit card with the VISA or MasterCard logo on it, use it as a credit card, do not enter a PIN code. If you use the debit function and enter a PIN, you lose most of the consumer protections that come along with the card, often including the insurance.

CDW/LDW - Rental car companies typically offer an option for protecting renters from excess liability for an additional charge. Loss damage Waiver (LDW) protects if the car is stolen or damaged while you’re renting. Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) is pretty much the same thing with a different name. These waivers are not insurance, just the rental company’s agreement to limit your liability. Remember that the waivers do not cover loss or damage of your property. LDW and CDW vary from company to company and are not legal in every state. Some companies offer modified LDW/CDW plans that waive liability for smaller dollar amounts to cover the deductible expense for renters using their own insurance.

OTHER INSURANCE – Travel Insurance available from travel agencies and tour operators may offer better coverage for the vehicle, baggage, personal effects and medical services at a competitive price. Talk with your travel professional.

FUEL OPTIONS – Most car rental companies offer the ability to prepay for a full tank of gas at a reasonable market rate price. They’ll explain that they charge a rate three to four times market rate per gallon if you return the car with less than a full tank of gas. Of course, they make out like bandits with the prepay system unless you coast in on fumes. That’s why I don’t recommend the prepay service unless you absolutely want the convenience of not worrying about filling the tank before returning the car.

CHECK OUT THE CAR – When you finally get to the car, take a few minutes to closely inspect its condition, both for safety and to ensure you don’t pay for damage already inflicted on the vehicle. Check the tread and inflation on the tires, try the lights and horn. Be absolutely sure to note the fuel level and every stain, scratch or cosmetic damage to the car (they usually give a form for this) and turn it in to the attendant. Be sure to get a copy with their signature and the date on it. If you don’t do this, the rental agreement states that the car is in perfect condition unless otherwise noted.

DURING THE RENTAL – Keep the rental agreement with the car at all times, it is the legal equivalent of the vehicle registration that you’ll need if you encounter law enforcement. If you have any problems with an accident or breakdown, call the rental company as soon as possible. If there’s an accident, try to take some photos of the scene if you can do so safely. Do not keep the car past the agreed upon rental period. If you need to extend the rental, call the company or your travel professional to arrange this before the initial rental period elapses.

RETURNING THE CAR – If you can get a receipt from an attendant who inspects the vehicle when you return it, you are pretty well protected from surprises later. If you’re returning the vehicle after hours or any time where the vehicle is not inspected, be sure to document the mileage and fuel level. Keep any receipts for fuel you purchased during the rental and take a photo of the car at the return facility if you have a camera. Finally, and this is very important, pay by Credit Card. Don’t pay by cash, check or debit function (using a PIN), or you will lose the powerful consumer protections built into the cards.

AFTER THE RENTAL – From time to time, renters receive some correspondence from a rental car company afterwards, alleging some damage or requesting additional payment. Sometimes an extra charge shows up on a credit card statement. This is why it’s essential to have the proper documentation after the fact, especially if you need to dispute credit card charges through you credit card issuer. Your travel agent or consultant can also be a powerful advocate for you in a situation like this simply because or their experience and ongoing business relationship with the rental company – don’t hesitate to use them.

Watch for my car rental tips for Western Europe.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Cruise Ship Trivia: Maritime Flags

You can tell a lot about a ship, including cruise ships, just by looking at the flags flown on the mast. In my example photo you can you can tell the owner, location and next planned action of the ship. Interestingly, you cannot tell the country where the ship is registered by looking at these flags.

The picture shows the mast of a cruise ship in port. Beginning on the port (left) side: the leftmost flag is called the house flag and represents which shipping line owns the ship, in this case Royal Caribbean International. The blue flag with the white rectangle just to the right of the house flag is called the Blue Peter. It is the signal flag that represents the letter “P” in the International Marine Signal Flag Alphabet. When flown from the mast it indicates the ship’s intention to sail. The two flags flying from the starboard (right) side of the mast are courtesy ensigns flown to represent the country in whose waters the ship is sailing. The captain may display additional courtesy ensigns for a particular port that the ship is visiting. In this case, the flag of the U.S. Virgin Islands and the United States flag is displayed The national flag of the ship itself is flown from the jackstaff at the stern of the vessel.

The mast in the photo belongs to Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas. It was taken just prior to sailing from Long Bay in Charlotte Amalie Harbor, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands in August 2005.

Photo Credit: Christopher Gould

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Disney’s Magical Express Airport Service Saves the Day

The Rubik's Cube stair tower at Disney's Pop Century Resort.
Photo Credit: Christopher Gould

As a travel professional I have had plenty of opportunities to visit and learn about the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. I’ve been planning client trips there for years, but my latest trip to Disney was the most special, because it was my first as a parent.

I was excited to try out a new service that Disney recently began offering at Walt Disney World – Disney's Magical Express Service. The Magical Express is available to guests that are staying in one of Disney’s own resort hotels. The service is designed to make your arrival at Walt Disney World swift and carefree.

When your plane lands at Orlando Airport you can bypass baggage claim (your checked luggage will be delivered to your hotel room by Disney) and head directly to the Disney Welcome Center where you board luxury motor coaches that will take you to your Disney Resort hotel. During the ride, a short welcome and orientation video is played which really ramps up the excitement and anticipation for kids.

Disney’s Magical Express sounded great, but it turned out even better for my family. We took an afternoon flight from Raleigh to Orlando and arrived just as a thunderstorm began. As we left the aircraft by jetway, a crew member informed us that the airport had declared a “code red” weather alert, which meant that no personnel were allowed to work outside until the storm had passed. That meant no bags would be unloaded until the code red was over.

Our aircraft was a small 50 seat regional jet and we’d gate checked our stroller and our larger carry-on bag. Those items are unloaded first and delivered back to you right on the jetway; except during a code red. As we walked down the concourse towards the Disney Welcome Center, I wondered what would become of those items. Because I expected to handle them as carry-on items, they weren’t tagged with the special Disney tags that would speed them to our hotel room.

At the Welcome Center I gave some information about our gate-checked items to a friendly staff person who told me not to worry. We boarded our bus and were soon at Disney’s Pop Century Resort where we checked into a room in the Eighties-themed building. We had a nice dinner and we returned to our room. After a few minutes, there was a knock at the door, and all our luggage arrived – even the gate-checked stuff.

The next day, I overheard people talking about the previous night’s situation at the airport. The code red lasted for over two hours and huge crowds clogged the baggage claim and ground transportation areas afterwards. Thanks to the Magical Express, our experience was totally different.

Disney is offering Magical Express Service at no charge to Walt Disney World Resort hotel guests through 2006.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Celebrities Aboard: How Queen Mary 2 is Creating a New Golden Age of Travel

Clark Gable enjoys a laugh with a Cunard officer aboard the first Queen Mary.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection

Travel used to be something glamorous. Press photographers would board every great ocean liner after it entered New York harbor, eager to photograph the famous actors, former kings and statesmen aboard.

Ambitious mothers might scrimp to afford an ocean crossing in First Class, hopeful that their beautiful young daughter would catch the eye of an aristocrat or millionaire. Perhaps you have your own family story of how Aunt Edna was always in the lounge on the Queen Mary so she wouldn't miss rubbing elbows with Clark Gable on a voyage in '49.

It's a wonderful romantic memory that Cunard Line, who had so many of those great liners, has worked hard to recapture. Since the debut of Queen Mary 2 in 2004 it's become apparent to me that the most expensive and ambitious liner in history has successfully enticed the Jet Set to cross the Atlantic in a more civilized manner.

I'll confess, I'm a really big fan of Queen Mary 2 and the experiences of myself and my clients has only caused it to grow. Queen Mary 2 is an ocean liner, not a cruise ship. She's an ocean liner in every sense: engineering, itineraries and ambiance. I will omit the superlatives for today because I want to share some photos that I've gotten a kick out of lately. These pictures show today's glitterati aboard today's most glittering ship. (Click to enlarge photos)

Actor Richard Dreyfuss (R) on the bridge with Commodore Warwick (L).
For this and following photos: Cunard Line (All Rights Reserved)

Actress S. Epatha Merkerson from Law & Order enjoys Manhattan views before setting sail from Cunard's new terminal in Red Hook Brooklyn.

Author Sir Harold Evans and his wife Tina Brown (founding editor of Vanity Fair) enjoy some fresh air on Deck 12 of QM2.

George Lucas accepts an award aboard QM2 from Commodore Warwick during the Cannes Film Festival.

Legendary screen siren Jane Russell sits in the Captain's chair.

Rocker Rod Stewart boards ship in Southampton.

Another Englishman, John Cleese, poses on Queen Mary 2's bridge.

Uma Thurman looks like she's already started to relax.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

France, On the Canal du Nivernais

I snapped this photo of a lock-keeper’s house and bicycle while on a canal trip through Burgundy. I wondered why Madame (the lock-keepers were inevitably women) kept her red bicycle alongside the canal. It turned out that she was also responsible for the next lock, perhaps a half mile away. When we were finished at this lock, she rode her bicycle alongside our boat, chatting with my family the whole way.

Photo Credit: Christopher Gould

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