Travel

One travel writer's most valuable money lessons of 2013

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Last year was filled with great travels, which also presented opportunities for money errors — mistakes I had never made before and hope never to again. Herewith, the "If I Only Had a Brain" award winners of 2013:

—Buying a gray market camera. The gray market sounds a little shady. It's not; it's perfectly legal. Gray market electronics — items that were meant for sale in another country but are sold here — often are less expensive, which, if you're a money hawk, sounds like a good thing. The issue is that warranties may not be honored.

After accidentally destroying my year-old Nikon point and shoot, I sought a replacement. I found a slightly newer model on Amazon, where I had bought the first camera. The price was only about $35 more, so I bought it from the Amazon seller.

All was well until an especially dusty assignment; I got a "lens error" message just like the one I once had on my original Nikon. As I did the first time, I sent the camera to Nikon. But unlike the experience with the first camera, this time Nikon wouldn't repair it; it shipped the camera back to me, with a return slip that said, "Gray market."

I was thunderstruck. I do not know whether the seller indicated this, and because that seller is no longer on Amazon, I cannot find its original page to check. When I complained to Amazon (as a consumer, whom they didn't know from Adam), it directed me to the seller. (I later asked Amazon to describe its relationship with gray market sellers; it didn't respond.)

After returning the camera to the seller, I received an email that said the camera had water damage on the screen and impact damage. Keeping my outrage under control, I explained that the "water damage" was an air bubble under the screen shield and that the camera had lived most of its life in a neoprene case inside a camera case and had never been dropped. Oh, the seller said, in that case we'll replace it. The seller didn't know who I was or where I work so I'm not sure why the change of heart.

I do know that the next lens error repair — and my experience suggests there will be one — will come out of my pocket.

Lesson learned: If you're buying gray market, make sure you know it and are willing to take the risk. Otherwise, buy only from an authorized dealer.

—Returning a rental car to the wrong location. This was a doozy. In May, my husband and I rented a car in Boston to drive to Connecticut, Pennsylvania and then to the Washington area. I also changed my original plan to fly out of Dulles in Virginia and chose Baltimore instead. But I didn't change my rental car reservation to reflect that.

When I returned the car to the Baltimore rental lot, the bill was almost double the amount on my rental car contract. That's because, the manager said, I had returned the car to a different location from the one I had reserved. I was charged for a new use that reflected a last-minute on-the-spot booking.

The rental car company did give me about a 20% price break when I called and explained what I'd done. My husband gave me a break by eating the difference for me and never mentioning it again. I'm hoping he doesn't read this far down in the column.

Lesson learned (seems pretty obvious, but ... ): Review all your travel plans side by side by side to make sure they sync. As good as the World Mate and TripIt apps are, seeing the plans on paper seems to help me.

—Buying a SIM card for an unlocked wireless hot spot in London: It cost 15 pounds — a little less than $25 — and I was never able to activate it. I had some conversations with the carrier upon my return, but it said it found no record of the purchase, even though I had receipts. I gave up. Although the hot spot sounded like a good idea, it was a redundancy I didn't need. I found free wireless in all my hotels, even the dumpiest one. My plan to use the hot spot so I could work while on the train? It was much more interesting to stare out the window, which is an object lesson in and of itself.

Lesson learned: If the need arises, buy the hot spot when you get where you're going. As connectivity experts have told me, a local solution to your needs is always the best one. As my mother always told me, too soon old, too late wise.

travel@latimes.com

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