Industry works to temper anxiety, encourage bookings

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War-wary travelers have much to worry about these days: cruising into unsafe waters; canceling nonrefundable hotel reservations; wondering if their favorite airline will go out of business, taking their frequent-flier miles along with it.

Although travelers can buy insurance that covers many reasons for canceling or interrupting a trip -- including a terrorist attack -- few if any insurers will cover acts of war occurring after a trip has begun.

Dedicated travelers will keep flying, cruising and driving regardless, though with more precautions. As one recent bulletin board posting on European travel expert Rick Steves' Web site says, "The small chance of being attacked in a foreign country is not worth the price you would pay for living a boring, sheltered life."

No matter the concern -- psychological, physical or financial -- the industry already has begun responding with ways to take the worry out of wanderlust. Among the trends in an industry in flux:

Airlines

Most airlines are enforcing the usual rules and penalty charges that come with the low-price, advance-purchase, nonrefundable tickets most leisure travelers buy.

At least one carrier, Virgin Atlantic, is liberalizing its policy because of customers' uncertainty about international travel. Passengers holding reservations and those making new bookings for travel between the United States and Britain (or between Britain and some Far East destinations) will be allowed to cancel and rebook without penalty up to 72 hours before departure. Reservations must be ticketed before March 17 and travel completed by Dec. 31.

Travel insurance companies report that policies are selling well. Many cover terrorist attacks, though not the outbreak of war.

Travel Guard International's new air-ticket protection plan reimburses up to $100 in ticket change fees and up to the full ticket cost if travel is canceled or interrupted for designated reasons, including a terrorist incident in the destination city within 30 days of your scheduled arrival. Prices range from $15 to $22 for flights up to $300.99, and $45 to $81 for more expensive tickets. The policy covers airline default if the carrier has not already filed for bankruptcy protection. It also includes 24-hour emergency travel assistance.

"Say you get to the airport and your flight has been canceled. We have 24-hour counselors who can book a flight, a hotel, make ground transportation," says Dan McGinnity, a Travel Guard spokesman. "Until now leisure travelers had been kind of at the mercy of the airline."

Health and travel insurer HTH Worldwide is offering similar coverage.

"Because of the vulnerability that people have right now, we've added some additional services," says Vice President Brendan Sharkey. At the company's Web site, www.hthworldwide.com, policyholders can monitor crime, political instability and other concerns about their destination country.

What about frequent-flier miles you've accumulated on airlines that have declared bankruptcy or that may be forced into bankruptcy if war hurts business?

Frequent fliers have no legal rights to awards, says Randy Petersen of InsideFlyer Magazine. "If you look at the fine print," he says, "miles and points are never the property of the member."

Tim Winship, who disperses information at www.frequentflier.com, says consumers panicked when United filed for bankruptcy reorganization in December.

"Now that the possibility of war is looming and the economy hasn't improved, people are getting even more jittery," Winship says. His advice: Use those miles now.

Hotels

Hotel and motel cancellation policies vary from property to property, even within the same chain. After Sept. 11, most chains waived cancellation fees and refunded deposits for guests who couldn't reach their destination -- or were simply too scared to travel.

Most hotels have not taken similar action "simply because there hasn't been an event," says Bill Hanley, spokesman for the American Hotel & Lodging Assn. But, he adds, in the event of war, "I'd expect the industry would respond the same way. It doesn't do us much good to hold somebody's feet to a fire in difficult times."

Few owners report major effects after warnings from Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and the State Department that hotels may be among the principal "soft targets" for terrorists.

"We haven't really seen mass cancellations," says Kathy Shepard, spokeswoman for Beverly Hills-based Hilton Hotels Corp. She says it's premature to talk about changes in cancellation policies. "We're just waiting to see what happens."

London-based Thistle Hotels, with 56 properties in Britain, has suspended cancellation charges on bookings, citing "customer concerns about international travel."

SuperClubs, which operates 12 all-inclusive resorts in Jamaica, the Bahamas, Curacao, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, recently changed its policy. In the event of war in Iraq or a terrorist attack in North America, travelers can postpone vacations up to a year without penalty.

Cruises

Cruise line cancellation policies also vary. Though many companies were flexible after 9/11, most have returned to their regular rules.

Typically passengers will not be penalized if they cancel months in advance, but they might forfeit half or more of the fare if they cancel within 30 days of departure.

"Six or eight cruise lines have altered their cancellation policies to make them more lenient because consumers are expressing some concern about the environment," says Bob Sharak of Cruise Lines International Assn., which represents 25 lines.

SeaDream Yacht Club, a Florida-based company that operates two 110-passenger craft, has started a "no stress, no strings" policy. Passengers can cancel up until departure on either yacht (one in the Mediterranean, one in the Caribbean) and get a trip credit good for two years.

"You don't have to make up a story that your grandmother died," says spokesman Ernie Beyl. "You just have to say, 'I've decided not to go.' "

Crystal Cruises is launching Cruise Protection Program-Plus, an insurance upgrade that allows travelers to cancel for any reason up to three days before departure. Credit is given on a sliding scale based on time of cancellation. The per-person cost of the upgrade is $200 for fares less than $8,000 or 3% of the fare for cruises more than $8,000.

River cruise specialist Uni- world is offering its gold plan coverage -- ordinarily $204 to $504 per passenger -- free. It guarantees 100% reimbursement for cancellations (regardless of reason) on new European river cruise bookings for April and May. If a booking is canceled at least 90 days before departure, 90% will be returned in cash, 10% as a travel certificate. The cash portion decreases as the sailing date nears; if the cancellation is within 30 days of departure, 100% of the refund is travel credit.

Tour operators

A mini poll of tour operators shows "a very, very mixed bag," says Linda Kundell of the U.S. Tour Operators Assn. Some are allowing cancellations for any reason up to two days before departure; others are doing business as usual.

Closer-to-home is a recurring theme. In April, tour operator Cosmos will launch its "On the Road" program in the United States and Canada. The agency will book flights and lodging, then send the traveler off with rental-car keys and a Tripkit that contains directions, maps and hotel vouchers.

Cosmos and its sister brand, Globus, have an enhanced insurance plan for domestic and foreign travel. Customers who buy the enhanced plan, $15 extra, may cancel up to 24 hours before departure and get reimbursement in cash or a travel certificate good for a year.

Regardless of how or where you're traveling, experts have tips for making the journey safer and more enjoyable. Bruce McIndoe, chief executive of iJET, a company that assesses risks for business and leisure travelers, emphasizes the importance of leaving an itinerary and photocopies of your passport, will, insurance policies and vital documents with family or friends. Designate a person at home to be called in an emergency. If going to a high-risk place, take a satellite or international cell phone and be covered by a company such as Medical Assistance (www.medexassist.com), which provides 24-hour multilingual help (including doctor referrals) and medical evacuation.

Just as some travelers are taking these extra precautions, health professionals are changing their approach in the face of terrorism and war.

"Prior to 9/11, we did a pretty bang-up job around safety issues," says Reid Wilson, a psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders, including fear of flying. "They just don't hold water right now."

Wilson, who teaches at the University of North Carolina medical school, is seeing fewer, not more, fear-of-flying patients. "They think their fears are rational," Wilson says. "They have new data now that there are new code-orange threats. They're going to sit on the sidelines until things get better."

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