Consumer Reports Money Adviser
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November 2005
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What if your vacation plans go kablooey?
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Sure, the goal of a vacation is to relax. But life away from home can get stressful very quickly if you misplace your passport on the day of your flight to Timbuktu or, gulp, pack your blood-pressure meds or your birth-control pills in the suitcase that fails to make an appearance on the luggage carousel. Or what if you--or Grandpa--have a heart attack at the last minute and you can't make the trip? Or what if you fall gravely ill with malaria on your African safari? Here's how to deal with the major vacation snafus so you can sit back and really relax when it comes time to hop that plane to Tahiti. Happy trails!


ID YOURSELF--OR ELSE

Travelers face all kinds of snags related to having the right identification. For example, did you realize that some places require a passport that's valid for up to six months after the date you leave the country? Or that even a newborn needs a passport to travel? (Good luck if you're expecting an addition to the family while making overseas travel plans. Uncle Sam doesn't issue prenatal passports.) Or get this: Did you know that even if you're taking Amtrak you won't be able to get past the ticket agent without a driver's license or other government-issued ID? So wherever you're traveling, make sure you and your brood don't leave home without the right identification.

If you need a new passport, the good news is you can get one in 48 hours or less. But the traditional and least expensive route, which takes up to six weeks, is to visit one of the country's 6,000 passport-acceptance facilities, which include post offices, public libraries, courts, and county and municipal offices. (See www.travel.state.gov/passport for more information.) The total fee is $85 for adults and $70 for children under 16. Just don't forget to bring junior with you if he or she also needs to renew or apply for a passport; a new rule requires children to show up at the passport facility. (Also keep in mind that if both parents are not present, special guidelines apply.) You will need two photos and proof of U.S. citizenship, such as a birth certificate, and a driver's license or other valid photo ID. (If you're renewing a passport, you may be able to do that by mail. Check the State Department site.)

For an extra $60 plus overnight delivery fees, you can get a passport within two weeks, either at a passport facility or by mail. If you're traveling within 14 days, you'll probably need an appointment at one of the country's 13 passport agencies, and you'll need proof that you're traveling within two weeks, so bring your plane ticket along. For details, call the State Department's National Passport Information Center at 877-487-2778.

If you're headed to Burma this weekend and you discover that your passport just expired, so-called 24-hour passport firms might be able to help. But check with the Better Business Bureau before giving money to any of these outfits, advises the State Department. Also keep in mind that rush passport firms, such as Priority Passports in Miami Lakes, Fla., can take 24 to 48 hours to process an expedited passport. Pedro Bone Sr., Priority's president, says the company charges $140 on top of the government's fee. Customers must also pay the cost of overnighting the documents.

What if you lose your passport while traveling? Keep a copy of your passport's photo page separate from the passport so you can get a new one fast at the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate's office.


CONSIDER YOUR HEALTH

Did you know that your health plan might not cover medical expenses abroad? If yours doesn't, consider travel health insurance, which usually covers hospitalization, medical treatment, emergency evacuation to a medical facility in the country you're visiting, and prescription drugs. Premiums depend on age, length of trip, and coverage amount. Keep in mind some policies don't cover pre-existing medical conditions and people over age 75. You may also not be covered for high-risk activities like mountain climbing.

Jim Grace, president of InsureMyTrip.com, which offers 62 plans, also points out that medical evacuation and repatriation are important terms to understand in these policies. Med evac coverage typically gets you to the nearest medical facility that can provide appropriate care. Repatriation means that once you're well enough to travel, you'll be returned home. But you may have to pay cash--yes, cash--before a foreign hospital will discharge you. So consider a plan that includes cash-wire transfers.

If you lose your drugs, contact a local pharmacist, then your physician to see if a local formula is OK. "Even if it's a drug with the same active ingredient, it likely is not exactly the same drug," says Susan Winckler of the American Pharmacists Association.


GIVE YOURSELF CREDIT

Tell your credit-card issuer about your itinerary before leaving on vacation or risk having your charges declined when the lending institution detects what it believes to be fraudulent activity even though the charges are yours. That can be a tad inconvenient, especially if you're trying to check out of a hotel so you can catch a plane. Also, remember to pack photocopies of the fronts and backs of your credit cards, so if your cards are lost or stolen, you can report that immediately. Credit-card companies can get new cards to you within 24 to 48 hours.


COVER YOUR TRAVEL

If you're prepaying your vacation, consider trip-cancellation insurance. Most of these policies, like those offered by Travel Guard (www.travelguard.com; 800-826-1300), also include some health coverage. The insurance may cover only nonrefundable airplane tickets or the cost of an entire package if you have to cancel before you leave or return early because of an emergency. Many policies also cover cancellations because of weather, terrorism, and bankruptcies of travel suppliers.

Dan McGinnity, spokesman for Travel Guard, says it's important to read policies and understand what they cover before buying anything. If you have, say, an elderly parent who's ill, ask if the plan you're considering would cover you if your parent takes a turn for the worse and you need to cancel or interrupt the trip. Premiums average between 5 and 7 percent of the amount covered. You can buy trip-cancellation insurance up to 24 hours before departure, but if you want coverage for financial default of a travel supplier or a pre-existing medical condition, be sure to buy your policy within 7 to 15 days of booking your trip.


CARRY ON VALUABLES

Your homeowners-insurance policy might cover stolen items or you may need a policy with an off-premises theft endorsement. If the item is worth more than $500, it must be "scheduled," or listed, with your insurer. Make sure you keep a copy of the product's serial number so you can file a claim and a police report.

Some trip-cancellation policies cover lost or stolen luggage. There is no deductible, and policies provide up to $2,500 in coverage. Airlines will reimburse you for lost or stolen luggage; they pay up to $2,800 per bag for domestic travel as of Oct. 22. For international travel, reimbursement is pegged at $9.07 per pound. So don't pack valuables like jewelry or cameras in your checked baggage. Keep them with you in your carry-on luggage.
This article was also published in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.
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