KNOWLEDGE is power for travel consumers, helping them save money and avoid hassles. If I were teaching a Travel 101 course this year, I'd draw up lesson plans for the following topics:
1. How to get a passport On Jan. 23, the U.S. government began requiring that every air passenger crossing into the U.S. from Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean carry a passport. As early as next year, cruise passengers and those reentering by car or on foot will need passports (or an equivalent document) too. So it makes sense to get a passport now.
The process can take several weeks, and the document is good for 10 years. For details on applying, visit http://www.travel.state.gov and click on "Passports," or call (877) 487-2778.
2. What's new in airport security If you haven't flown in a while, review restrictions on what items you can pack for your trip, which are posted on the Transportation Security Administration's website, http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel . (Click on "Prohibited Items.") New rules, imposed in August, require that all liquids, gels and aerosols that you carry onboard be in 3-ounce containers or smaller.
3. Learn to navigate the Internet Even the casual vacationer can no longer ignore the Web. Travelers who don't sign on pay $20 service fees to book flights by phone. They're left out of fare sales that airlines advertise in e-mails. They don't see other customers' reviews of hotels. They languish in ticket lines because they didn't check in for their flight by computer. A few minutes online can save money and time.
4. When to use a travel agent Because airlines don't pay commissions, travel agents typically charge service fees of $25 or more to research and book a ticket. It's rarely worth paying that for a domestic trip you could book for free online.
But if you're a novice traveler, or you need an international ticket or a complicated air itinerary, expert help can be worth the price. And because major hotels and cruise lines typically pay commissions, you shouldn't have to pay anything to book a room or a ship cabin through a travel agent.
Agents can also custom design itineraries, research destinations and help in a crisis.
5. When your miles expire Many airlines cancel frequent-flier miles in accounts that have been "inactive" for a certain period — that is, if the holder has failed to earn more miles, redeem award travel or buy from the airline's retail partners.
6. How to save on lodging More people are traveling, which allowed U.S. hotels to raise room rates by 7% last year, according to Smith Travel Research, an industry data provider in Hendersonville, Tenn. That growth is expected to slow in 2007 but still outpace inflation, industry experts say.
To reduce the pain, schedule your stays off-season and midweek if possible. Consider so-called limited-service chains, such as Holiday Inn Express and Hampton Inn, which offer Internet access, local phone calls and breakfast for free. Before you book any hotel, call to find out if there are added charges, such as daily resort fees and parking.
7. How to price a foreign air ticket Deals abound on European flights during winter and early spring. But fares, in big type in ads, may not include some taxes and fees, in small type, which can total hundreds of dollars. One such tax, Britain's airport passenger duty, doubled Thursday.
A recent $248 round-trip fare between LAX and London cost twice that when Britain's departure tax (about $79), U.S. departure and arrival taxes ($30.20), fuel surcharge ($130) and other charges were added.
8. If your luggage is missing This appears to be a growing problem. More than six out of every 1,000 passengers on big U.S. airlines reported delayed, lost or damaged bags in November, a figure that's up 20% from November 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Only a tiny fraction of missing bags are lost forever; many arrive before you do or come on a later flight. So if your bag isn't on the carousel, ask the airline's employees if they stored it or expect it later. If you don't get it on the spot, file a written report right away. For details, visit airconsumer.ost.dot.gov and choose "Travel Tips & Publications," then "Fly Rights."
9. Where to find a cheap cruise With more people taking cruises and ships sailing fuller than ever, it can be tough to get a cabin at a good price for Alaska, Europe and other popular sailings.
Although the Baltics are hot, the Caribbean is not — at least, not hot enough to fill all the ships that cruise lines send there. Some cabins in the Caribbean recently were going for less than $100 per person per day, a bargain by any standard.
10. When to book trips If August in Palm Springs is your idea of fun or you can travel on a few days' notice, you'll probably find a nice deal. But if you want to spend the holidays in Hawaii or ski in Aspen, Colo., on Presidents Day, your chances drop precipitously.
Book popular places and dates as early as possible.