Liz Weston, CFP®
Almost every trip teaches me something about myself, the world, and what not to do next time. Here are three hard-earned travel lessons that can help you learn from my mistakes.
Improvising flights is not worth the savings
Whenever I can, I book direct flights. Direct flights may cost a bit more, but they avoid the hassle of layovers and the stress of potentially missing a connection.
Sometimes, of course, nonstop flights are not available or affordable. What you don’t want to do, I learned through bitter experience, is try to save money booking flight segments with different non-affiliated airlines, especially if it involves baggage or customs.
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In 2017, my husband, daughter and I flew to London and then to Barcelona, Spain. That part went well; was coming back that it turned into a nightmare. The flight from Barcelona to London was delayed. When we landed at London Heathrow Airport, we learned that we had to collect our bags at baggage claim, go through customs, check our bags at another airline’s ticket counter in a different terminal, go through security and rush out the door to make our connection, all in about an hour.
Somehow, unbelievably, we made our flight home, but my heart didn’t stop pounding until we were well over the Atlantic Ocean. Now I make sure to book through only one airline and its partners. Our luggage is checked through to our final destination, and flight delays become a problem for the airline to deal with.
Make sure you are insured
For years I happily wandered the world, not thinking about what might happen if I got sick or injured far from home. Then my father had a stroke while visiting his sister in Florida. The medical evacuation flight to take him back to his home in Washington state, with the required attendant and other necessary medical care, would have cost more than $100,000.
Unfortunately, he never recovered enough to make that flight. But I realized how vulnerable he had been, especially when traveling to places with poor medical care. Now I make sure that when we are away from home, we have travel insurance including medical evacuation. If we travel outside of the US, I make sure we have health insurance coverage as well.
These days, travelers also have to worry about COVID-19. Although the US has removed the requirement that incoming travelers present a negative COVID-19 test, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against traveling if you have symptoms or test positive. That could mean a week or two of unexpected hotel and meal costs, so I make sure our travel insurance covers COVID-related expenses and the “trip delay” portion is capped high, like $250 per person per day.
Other things can go wrong on a trip: flight delays and cancellations, lost luggage, rental car accidents. I charge all of our trips on credit cards that provide coverage for such minor disasters. I especially like the type of auto rental coverage that is primary, meaning your insurer never needs to know that you caused an accident or damaged the rental car. Many cards offer secondary coverage, which generally means your insurer must be notified and the card pays only what your insurance doesn’t pay, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Here’s a lesson I didn’t have to learn the hard way: The one time a rental car agency tried to charge me for a knock on the door, I notified my credit card company. I have no idea if the claim was paid or abandoned; I just know that I didn’t have to deal with it after that.
Beware of third party booking sites
Many credit cards offer general services travel rewards which you can transfer to the issuer’s partner airlines and hotels. But some credit card companies also offer their own travel portals. These work much like online travel agencies like Expedia and Orbitz, allowing you to search through various travel providers and then book with your points.
I don’t normally use online travel agencies, because I think I get better customer service by booking direct. But earlier this year I decided to try the travel portal option, and I lived to regret it.
The flight I booked from Los Angeles to Vienna with my credit card points had a layover in Istanbul. A few weeks after booking, I received an email informing me that the Istanbul to Vienna leg had been cancelled.
I logged into the airline’s site, hoping to be offered options to rebook the canceled leg. Instead, I received a message that my itinerary could not be changed. When I called the airline, a customer service agent told me that I needed to call the credit card company. When I called the credit card company, they told me I needed to talk to the airline.
I tried to send an email to solve the problem, with the same result. Finally, desperate, I reached out to Twitter. It took a few more rounds of finger pointing, but I was finally able to cancel the reservation, get my points back, and swear I’d never use a travel portal again.
This article was written by NerdWallet and originally published by The Associated Press.