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Here, There and Everywhere...

Here, There and Everywhere...

International travel has grown steadily over the last several years. People are feeling more comfortable going all around the world. But before you pack your bags, make sure all your papers are in order.
By Sam Phillips

The Actuary recently asked Bob Smyth of Gant Travel Management some questions regarding international travel. Smyth says if you plan well and are up to date on new regulations and passport requirements, traveling abroad is smooth sailing.

What are the most important considerations when planning a trip outside the United States?

I think there are two things that are critically important for a successful international trip: valid documentation and a sense of respect for the country you are visiting.

What should travelers consider with regard to documentation?

In January of this year, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative went into effect. This program requires U.S. citizens to carry a passport to re–enter the United States after visiting Canada, Mexico or most islands in the Caribbean by air. (Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are exempt from this program). The initiative has caused a surge in passport applications, and the processing time for securing a U.S. passport can be as long as 12 weeks. It is essential that you plan accordingly if you don't have a passport or your current passport is near its expiration date.

Many countries require that your passport be valid for a period of six months beyond the date that you plan to return to the United States. For example, if your trip to Singapore ends on May 1, the government of Singapore requires that your passport be valid until at least Nov. 1 in order for you to be admitted to their country. This requirement has caused some travelers to be turned away at the border, even though their U.S. passport hasn't yet expired.

Some countries require U.S. citizens to secure a visa before visiting. A visa is essentially the country's written permission for you to enter the country. Visa processing time and cost varies by country, but can take as long as 21 working days and $200 to process. It's important to note that you must generally forward your passport to the consulate office that will process your visa, so you will be unable to travel internationally during the processing period.

Your local travel agent should have access to the latest passport and visa requirements for every country on earth, and can help guide you through the process of securing the necessary international travel documentation.

You mentioned respect is important. How so?

While having the correct documentation is essential for you to begin your international trip, having respect for the people and the country you will be visiting is essential for the success of your trip.

Respect begins with understanding. As a visitor, you should make an effort to understand the local culture and traditions. You should also try to understand and respect the native social norms. Of course, it doesn't hurt if you also understand the language. However, the United States is one of the few countries that will confer university degrees without requiring students to be fluent in a second language. Although I never studied a language beyond three years of high school Spanish, I have traveled through Europe and Asia and have had little trouble with the language barrier. So even though there were times when I didn't understand the words people were saying, I always try to understand and respect the local culture and traditions.

Here are the three tips to success:

  • Learn to say, "Hello," "Thank you," "Good morning" and "Good–bye" in the local language. These four simple expressions accompanied by a smile will set the tone of your encounter.
  • Have some local currency in your pocket when you arrive. It's less stressful to exchange currency at the airport kiosks in the United States than when at the airport kiosk in your destination. Try to get the smallest denomination of currency as possible so that you'll be ready to tip those who may help you during the arrival process (taxi driver, bellman, etc.). In most developed countries, you can find an ATM and withdraw more currency as you need it during the trip, but having some local currency when you arrive reduces stress and gives you a chance to become familiar with the money before you have to use it.
  • Purchase a good, small guidebook. I particularly like the Eyewitness Top 10 series of guidebooks. They are small, have great maps, identify the "Don't Miss" sights of a city and even have a small phrase– book section. The guides are sold by individual city, and are ideal for a business traveler who might have an afternoon or an entire day to explore a foreign destination.

What changes have taken place in the last three to five years?

There have been significant changes in the international travel arena in recent years. One of those changes is that many U.S. carriers have realized there is more money to be made in flying to international destinations than there is in flying to domestic destinations and have greatly expanded their international service. This is great news for the traveler, since it has never been easier to fly between two secondary, or even tertiary, cities. For example, it's now possible to fly between Omaha, Nebraska and Bristol, England by making a single connection. This kind of access between smaller cities is unprecedented. Also, with increased competition come lower prices, at least for economy–class travelers.

Specialized carriers are entering the marketplace. These carriers include those that are carving out a niche in serving business travelers with high quality, low cost business class (MaxJet, Eos, Silverjet), or some that are bringing the low–cost model to international skies.

Are travelers enjoying any other perks?

The introduction of premium economy class has given travelers another option when flying. Premium economy class represents a great value for travelers when traveling over the oceans. Generally a separate cabin with larger seats and more leg room, premium economy is priced at the high end of the economy class fares. Many of our customers have significantly reduced the cost of international flying by changing their travel policy to include premium economy travel on at least some portion of an international journey (instead of business class).

The recently–signed Open Skies agreement between the United States and Europe can mean significant changes to the trans–Atlantic skies. Now, any European airline will have the right to fly to any U.S. city. This means that you may see Lufthansa flying from Paris to New York, or British Airways flying Chicago to Berlin. In exchange, more U.S. carriers may be given the opportunity to serve London's Heathrow Airport.

Is international travel on the rise? Have you seen any trends?

International travel has been growing steadily over the past few years. Travelers are once again comfortable with leaving the United States to broaden their horizons or meet with customers. New, long–range jets make traveling great distances easier and faster. Two new jets, the fuel–efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus Industries' double–decker A380 will come online in 2008. Both promise to revolutionize international air travel, each in its own way.

Another trend we've seen is some of our customers moving manufacturing facilities to Mexico. This has resulted in a growth in trans–border travel. People tend to forget about trans–border crossings when discussing international travel. I think this says a lot about how our trade with our neighbors has become so commonplace that it's possible to forget that Canada, Mexico and the United States are three sovereign nations. The Western Hemisphere Travel initiative will help increase security across these borders by requiring travelers to have a passport. While this makes a border crossing more arduous in the short term, the standardization of documentation requirements and the speed with which those documents can be checked should make trans–border travel easier and more efficient in the long term.

Are there any examples of travel that haven't gone well that can be shared as "don't do this" information?

When you think about it, traveling is comprised of so many individual components, each provided by separate companies with different priorities. It's a wonder so many trips can occur without a single glitch or bump.

The most frightening stories of travels that have "gone bad" come from people who have attempted to do things on their own. While I am anything but an impartial outsider when it comes to using a travel agent, I can tell you that we are always hearing stories from travelers who have contacted a travel supplier directly to make reservations or purchase a service, only to be left without an advocate when something doesn't go exactly as planned. This is no more evident than during any kind of storm that affects a major hub airport. Our agents are routinely regaled with stories from our travelers about how we were able to provide assistance when other travelers were desperately trying to get through to an over–burdened airline reservation center to make a last–minute change. In addition, we can also get involved after a trip as a traveler advocate to help resolve any disputes. Finally, we have important industry contacts who can help in a pinch. The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) slogan sums it up perfectly: Without a travel agent, you're on your own.

Here are some real examples of mistakes travelers have made:

  • Check your passport and listen to your travel agent. We had an executive who neglected to heed our warning about making sure that his passport was valid beyond the six–month period of his intended stay in a country and was summarily turned away at the border and forced to fly 15 hours back home to the United States.
  • Cancel your air reservations if you are not going use them. There was a traveler who decided to drive rather than fly between two nearby cities without cancelling his air reservation. He was denied a refund of his full–fare ticket. With e–ticket usage approaching 98 percent, airlines have now mastered the art of reducing no–show reservations (where a traveler doesn't show up for a flight for which he has a confirmed seat). If you neglect to cancel a reservation that you don't use, the airline will keep the entire cost of the ticket as payment–you'll end up paying an airline for nothing!

Bob Smyth, CTIE, is vice president of Gant Travel Management, the Society of Actuaries' official travel agency. He can be contacted at 973.853.7598. Visit the Gant Travel Web site at Ganttravel.com.

Sam Phillips is associate editor for the Society of Actuaries.