Issue: October 2013

Security

Driving Internationally  How to Obtain a VAT Refund

Health

Food Poisoning While Traveling - From the Assist America Case Files

Travel

Airports use perks to compete for travelersMost Common and  Biggest Travel Mistakes

Regional Information

Africa - East Asia - Europe - Near East
South Asia - Western Hemisphere


Security

DRIVING INTERNATIONALLY [Back to Top]

Driving in a foreign country can offer many challenges, from road signs in different languages to driving on a side of the road unfamiliar to you. In addition, your driver's license may not be recognized in other countries. If you plan on driving abroad, here is some general information to help prepare you for your trip:

• Know your route. A good road map is essential. You can download and save certain Google maps for use offline.
• Chart your intended route and alternate routes.
• Many accidents in developing countries involve pedestrians, motorcyclists and bicyclists. Be alert and mindful that there are more than just other cars on the road.
• Check a country's road conditions and status; many roads are closed during certain times of year.
• Check with your auto insurance carrier to see if you are covered outside your home country. In most cases, your coverage will not meet the minimum requirements of the country in which you are traveling.
• Consider obtaining auto insurance that is at least the equivalent of the insurance you carry for your own vehicle, especially for liability coverage.

International Driver's Permit
• The international driver's permit (IDP) is not a driver's license. It is only intended as a supplement to your national or state driver's license by validating it in 11 languages. More than 150 countries recognize the IDP in accordance with the UN Conventions on Road Safety. However, not all of these countries require the IDP in order to have driving privileges. The International Driver's Association (idl-iaa.org) keeps an up-to-date list of countries that require the IDP and those where an IDP is recommended.
• Carry the IDP and your driver's license together at all times. The IDP cannot be used in your country of residence.

Driving Rules and Laws
• If possible, obtain a foreign country's driving rules before attempting to drive in the country. Driving rules can vary significantly from country to country.
• Contact a country's embassy or tourism office at www.towd.com for a copy of the rules. Many have them available on the Internet.
• Determine the minimum and maximum driving age.
• Confirm a country's conditions for bringing a private tourist automobile into the territory. In the US, approved automobile organizations can provide a standard bond document if a customs duty or bond is required.

Renting a motorized vehicle
• Check to see if the car rental company offers insurance and at what level of coverage. Many times coverage is inexpensive and highly encouraged or required.
• Consider obtaining additional insurance, especially liability coverage, if the car rental company's coverage is minimal.

HOW TO OBTAIN A VAT REFUND  [Back to Top]

A value-added tax (VAT) is not a sales tax, but travelers should think of it as one. A VAT is a fee levied on all goods and services by more than 100 countries as the goods and services go through the production chain. The amount that is taxed is the amount of value a particular step in the production chain added to the value of the good or service. For example, a book may have been taxed as the paper making up the book was manufactured, as printing was added to the paper, as covers were produced and added to the book, and as the book was moved into the marketplace for resale.

The VAT can add substantially to the final cost of purchased items, with total VAT charges of approximately 6-25 percent, depending upon the country and the type of good purchased. Many countries, particularly Canada and countries in Europe, allow foreign visitors to reclaim portions of the VAT they pay. Rules vary enormously by individual country, and in some circumstances the amount recovered may not be worth the trouble involved in recovering it. But if you plan to purchase and bring home expensive items, you should be aware of some general principles concerning recovery of VAT amounts.

--Every country has a threshold amount that must be spent before recovery of VAT payments is allowed; this amount can be a total amount spent within the visited country, a total amount spent at individual stores within the visited country, or a minimum amount paid per item.

--As you purchase items at stores, ask for a VAT refund form, which is a government document that will show you made the purchase in question. (You'll probably need to show your passport to prove that you are a foreign visitor).

--In some countries you can obtain refunds, minus an administrative fee, at major airports or checkpoints as you leave the country. Other countries require travelers to complete forms after they return home and mail the paperwork to tax authorities in the country visited.

--No matter what country you are leaving, stop by the customs desk at the airport or checkpoint before checking your luggage. Officials often ask to see the items for which you are claiming VAT refunds. You may have to obtain and complete forms at the airport or checkpoint before your departure.

--The refund process can take several months. The refund will be in the form of a payment to your credit card or a check. Keep in mind that cashing a foreign check at your local bank can involve the payment of substantial processing fees. Travel expert Peter Savage notes in his book, The Safe Travel Book, "In some cities, stores will informally arrange to credit your credit card for the refund when they receive the mailed forms -- this requires good faith all around."

--VAT refunds are useful to business travelers as well as leisure travelers. Businesses often can receive refunds for the VAT paid on business expenses incurred while overseas, including travel costs, operating expenses, trade show expenses, and related costs. There are several companies that help businesses with VAT refunds, including International Sales Tax Refund Corp. (www.insatax.com) and Retourtax (www.retourtax.com).

--Most states in the US require their residents to pay a "use tax" on certain goods brought into their states, and the states are becoming stricter about collecting the use tax. The use tax usually serves as a substitute for the sales tax the state would have collected if the item had been purchased within the state. At least one state, Virginia, has decided that payment of a VAT in a foreign country does not relieve a Virginia resident of the obligation to pay Virginia's use tax and does not count against the use tax amount. Without a VAT refund, then, US travelers could end up paying taxes twice on the same purchase.

Health

FOOD POISONING WHILE TRAVELING [Back to Top]

Nothing can ruin a vacation like a case of food poisoning. Even a mild case of food poisoning can disrupt a trip by keeping you confined to your quarters for days. And at its worst, it can cause dehydration and serious complications, and require you to seek a doctor's help.

Definition
Food poisoning is a general term for any number of illnesses caused by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. Food poisoning can cause flu-like symptoms including nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea, and occasionally lead to extreme dehydration and kidney damage. Food poisoning can happen to anyone, anywhere, but traveling—especially to places with inferior sanitation—can increase the risk.

Causes
Food poisoning is caused by parasites, bacteria and viruses. Travelers commonly risk food poisoning by eating at unfamiliar (and potentially unclean) restaurants—especially in areas with standards of sanitation lower than those to which tourists (and their immune systems) are unaccustomed. Food can become contaminated through improper cooking, handling and storage. In addition, foreign travelers may develop food poisoning by ingesting pathogens against which their bodies have no defense. Foreign travelers are commonly advised to avoid the local water— while locals can drink it without consequence, its unfamiliar pathogens may cause an adverse reaction in individuals not local to the area.

Symptoms
The effects of food poisoning vary depending on the source of contamination and the health of the person affected. In general, food poisoning causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain and cramps, fever, reduced appetite and exhaustion.

Time Frame
Food poisoning can interrupt or even ruin travel plans. The symptoms can take hold a few hours or a few days after the person has consumed the product responsible. Some cases go away within a day, some last several days and especially severe cases can linger for more than a week.

Treatment and prevention
Treatment for food poisoning generally consists of relieving symptoms and replacing fluids that have been lost because of vomiting, diarrhea and the patient's reluctance to eat or drink. Severe dehydration requires intravenous treatment in a hospital or clinic. Doctors may also prescribe antibiotics for severe cases caused by bacteria. To help reduce the risk of getting food poisoning in the first place, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends eating at restaurants with proper health certification, although there's no way to know if food became contaminated well before it was shipped to the restaurant.

Warning
Patients with mild cases of food poisoning may be able to tough it out, but should be on the lookout for severe symptoms that require professional medical treatment. According to the Mayo Clinic, these include frequent vomiting for more than two days, vomiting of blood, severe diarrhea lasting longer than three days, bloody stools, high fever, signs of dehydration and extreme abdominal pain.

FROM THE ASSIST AMERICA CASE FILES  [Back to Top]

Evacuation in Republic of Yemen

On August 29th, the Princeton Operations Center received a call from an insurance client in the United Arab Emirates who reported that a member and his family had been traveling in the Marib province in Yemen and were involved in a motor vehicle accident on August 23rd.  The father, mother and three children had all sustained injuries including a concussion and a variety of fractures and two minor children were unharmed. The client also informed us that the family had been hospitalized following the accident.  The Operations Team immediately contacted an older son, who was not involved in the accident but had also been traveling with the family and explained Assist America's services.

The Operations Team began assessing the capabilities of the hospital and possible evacuation plans. Due to the inability to communicate with the medical team at the hospital, the Operations Team consulted with the son and concluded that all of the injuries to the family members were beyond the care available at the Marib hospital.

Direct contact with the hospital continued to prove difficult as the staff rarely answered the phone and when they did answer, they refused to allow us to speak with the treating physicians. After persistent efforts, however, the Operations Team spoke to the treating physician the evening of the 29th and the doctor advised that most of the patients had been x-rayed but care had not progressed beyond that point. He did not provide any further details about their condition and requested the Team call back the next day.  On August 30th, the Operations Team sent the hospital a written request for a medical update via fax, as well as explained to the son the continuing difficulty we were experiencing getting in contact with the hospital and obtaining medical reports.

Although the patients were not in critical condition, the ongoing communication issues, technological limitations of the hospital, combined with the substandard medical reports and ongoing care, Assist America determined that an evacuation was necessary.  The Saudi German Hospital in Yemen's capital of Sana'a was the closest facility but its capabilities were only slightly better than the treating hospital and it was not going to provide long term adequate care/treatment.  Accordingly, the Operations Team focused on an evacuation plan to return the patients and family to the UAE with routing through Sana'a and the Saudi German Hospital for stabilization. 

Assist America arranged for a provider to pick up the patients on September 2nd; however, the provider could not obtain flight clearance and arrange a ground ambulance service.  Assist America confirmed with nine of its providers in the region that the problem impacting each provider was the absolute unavailability of ground ambulance service over the road that connects Marib to Sana'a.  This road had been previously closed due to protesting Yemenis and general tribal fighting.  No provider was willing to provide ground ambulance services to evacuate our members.  With no option for ground transport due to tribal fighting, road closure, fear of carjacking and personal safety issues, the Operations Team utilized its SecurAssist team to coordinate the ground ambulance portion of the mission.

Assist America, working in connection with its security advisors, devised a mission that included high level security measures to ensure the successful transport of the family through a mountainous and dangerous region.  The detail included four security vehicles with armed personnel carrying high powered automatic weapons, together with two ambulances.  The convoy was flanked by lead and rear security vehicles deployed at an effective distance from the ambulances to provide advance warning of any potential threats during the four hour journey. 

The ground transport was planned for September 5th but was delayed for a full day due to continuing tribal warfare in Marib.  This conflict forced the closure of all roads in and around the hospital and prevented the convoy from completing the mission on the 5th.  Rather than facing an indeterminable delay in the transport, the security team brokered a temporary truce with the tribal leaders allowing for the movement of the caravan/ambulances to and from the hospital.  The mission was delayed until late in the day on the 6th but the caravan left in time for travel during day light and one of the vehicles actually transported a tribal representative for a part of the trip to ensure safe passage. The transport was completed without incident.

Upon arrival, the Saudi German Hospital admitted the patients and medical staff evaluated their condition.  Assist America continued to monitor the treatment until discharge on September 9th.  Assist America arranged for ground ambulance service from the hospital to the airfield and air transport via air ambulance for the entire family from Sana'a to the UAE.  Upon arrival in the UAE, Assist America arranged for ground ambulance to take the patients to the local hospital for further treatment. 

Travel

airports use perks to compete for travelers [Back to Top]

When planning a trip, many people know to enroll in loyalty programs for airlines, hotels and car rental companies but travelers might be missing out on valuable rewards from another source: the airport. 

More airports are adding their own incentives for frequent travelers, including discounted parking, exclusive lounges and bonus airline miles on in-terminal purchases. "It's a way for airports to compete against each other as airline consolidation shifts routes and raises prices", said Dean Headley, a professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating study.  "Airlines offer the service that airports ultimately have to keep up with," he said, "And let's face it; fliers want convenience, price and schedule. If they can get a better deal by driving an hour, they'll do it."

Perks are more prevalent among small regional airports, which often come up short in such comparisons. "We are seeing a lot of local airports lose traffic to larger airports where there's more service, and therefore lower fares," said George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. "Loyalty programs are the next step in enticing passengers to use their facilities."

Airport approaches to these loyalty programs vary. In July, Bob Hope Airport in Burbank,Calif., launched an airportwide loyalty program through affiliate Thanks Again. Individuals who register an existing debit or credit card with the program automatically earn extra miles with their choice of partner airlines when they use the card at airport retailers.

Since its debut in December 2010, Thanks Again has developed 43 airportwide programs, and has participating merchants in another 128 U.S. airports, said Chief Executive Marc Ellis. "Airports are certainly interested in encouraging passengers to stay and engage," he said. Florida's Jacksonville International Airport has a "frequent parker program" which, for a $20 fee, gets participants discounts at airport businesses and accrues points on lot fees that can be redeemed for free parking. Gainesville Regional Airport, also in Florida, offers members of its free Ultimate Road Warrior Club perks including a separate lounge. OTG, a company whose goal is to transform the airport experience for travelers, makes waiting for flights more enjoyable with free iPads in airport terminals so travelers can surf the Web and order a snack.

But like airline loyalty, favoring one airport over another isn't always a sound bet. Larger hubs are often a better bet for cheap fares that may outweigh the value of rewards. On the other hand, ditching the local airport in favor of a bigger hub could have far-reaching consequences, said Headley. Larger airlines may scale back or eliminate service if there aren't enough passengers at a given airport.  "As a consumer, if you're thinking about altering your flying habits, think about how much you're willing to support the availability of local air service," he said. "Would you rather pay an extra $40 or $50 per ticket to make sure that airline is there when you need them?"

MOST COMMON AND BIGGEST TRAVEL MISTAKES  [Back to Top]

The CNN Travel staff has put in some hard miles. Collectively, they've touched down on every continent on earth and are closing in on every country. They've had the opportunity to learn from many travel mistakes along the way, sometimes the hard way. So what are some of the most common and biggest travel mistakes they've experienced?

Overpacking
At home, with your complete wardrobe available, there's no reason not to change clothes multiple times in a single day. But when your life is crammed into a couple bags, your fashion morality changes. Those socks you wore on the plane should be good for another go. The purple tee you slept in ought to be alright for a third wear. According to a recent survey by Travelodge, two-thirds of travelers typically return from a trip with at least six unworn outfits. The lesson: You don't need a new set of anything for each day of a trip. Figure on at least two wears for (almost) everything.

Not buying something you like as soon as you see it
You think you'll circle back to that shop. You think you'll see a cheaper, better version somewhere else. You won't. That evocative street painting or those nesting dolls you didn't buy? Now not having them will haunt you for the rest of your life. When you see something you like, just buy it and live without regret.

Not checking your phone plan before traveling abroad
What you call "international roaming" your phone carrier calls "shareholder dividend!"
A week of texts from Singapore or St. Lucia shouldn't cost more and hurt worse than open heart surgery. But it happens all the time to travelers who fail to check their phone plans before departure.

Trusting "near city center" descriptions
"Near city center" is like a Bible verse -- open to vast interpretation. When you find the money you saved on your "near city center" hotel is being spent on 30-minute commutes and outrageous taxi fares, you know you've committed one of the cardinal sins of travel. Except by purely technical definition, if you're staying near a convention center in Portland, Oregon, you're decidedly not staying "downtown" (as is popularly advertised) by any local sensibility.

Not tightening shampoo caps ... all the way
Those cute, little trial-size shampoo and conditioner bottles are really handy -- until they magically burst open in-flight, spreading a layer of glycerol soap all over your bag.

Thinking you know the perfect time to book a ticket
There's an art to figuring out the airlines' pricing schemes, but there's some muddled science to it, as well. According to Travelers Today, research conducted by Kayak found the optimal timing for a cheap-ticket purchase is 21 and 34 days before domestic and international flights, respectively. But 2012 analysis by CheapAir.com concluded that on average the cheapest fares are found 49 days before a flight. Meanwhile, researchers at Texas A&M University simply found that Saturdays and Sundays are best for finding discount fares. The golden rule? There's no golden rule. Tickets are cheapest when they're cheapest.

Trying too hard to chisel out a bargain
There's no faster way to become embittered with the locals than going toe-to-toe with a market full of hungry sales people and shopkeepers. Yes, we understand there's principle involved, but do you really need to whittle the equivalent of fifty cents off the price of an embroidered handbag that's going to sit in the back of a closet anyway?

Not changing money at the airport
When traveling internationally, the conventional wisdom is that only amateurs change money at the airport, because the exchange rate for foreign currency will be better in town. It usually is, but often not by that much. A recent check of the dollar-to-pound exchange rate in London Heathrow was $1.71 to £1 (with no commission for changes more than $300). Near Oxford Circus the exchange rate was advertised at $1.62 to £1, also with no commission. Using these rates, converting $300 at the airport would get you £175.43 as opposed to £185.18 on the street. So, you can hit the city cashless and spend an hour hunting up an acceptable place to change money or, for less than £10, arrive with some local coin in your pocket. Convenience factor alone makes it worth changing at least a nominal amount of cash at the airport.

Fearing street food
No one wants to get sick on vacation, but why travel all the way to Thailand or Mexico and not eat the local grub? The locals don't like food poisoning any more than you do. If they're in line, consider the place vetted and assume you're going to be fine.

Buying a drum on the first day of a three-month trek across Asia
We know, this is the antithesis of travel mistake number two, but there are some balls and chains you really don't want to lug around the subcontinent. Not because you'll make instant enemies with everyone in your hostel when they spy you struggling top-heavily into the dorm, but because a) you'll never play the thing, and b) you'll get back home, walk into the new Authentic Beats music shop that replaced your favorite bookstore while you were away and find 10 superior examples of your exact instrument.

Over-reliance on guidebooks
Making a travel plan using only your guidebook is like making a plan to stand in line at the bank for a week. Guidebooks are great -- we use them all the time -- but it's best to pull just one or two suggestions per day from a guide that thousands of like-minded travelers have read or downloaded.

Obsessive photography
The obsession/obligation to document scenery, every street scene and statue kills the spontaneity and visceral experience that should be the backbone of travel. It's now so easy to take photos that one click leads to another. Before you know it, you have 300 pictures on your phone. Your trip is now defined by low-quality images on a handset that, trust us, nobody back home wants to spend 20 minutes scrolling through. Take some time to be in the moment and soak in the images committing them to memory.

Not checking visa requirements before departure
Carnival Rio—it's a nightmare come true when you get turned away at the ticket counter on departure day because you didn't realize Brazil requires citizens of your country to secure a visa before travel.

Using a credit card to get cash
Credit card companies charge a high transaction fee (up to 15%) for using a card to get cash.
These special transactions also attract a higher associated fees than other purchases: the ATM-owning bank will charge a fee; if you're withdrawing a foreign currency the exchange rate will be miserly; and if you're not paying off your balance each month, credit card companies in some countries will apply your partial payments to normal purchases (with a lower interest rate, say 9%) before applying them to those cash advances (which have a much higher interest rate).

Not printing out reservation details
They're already on your phone and computer, so why bother with hard copies of your hotel name and address? Because your phone, computer, tablet and other electronics might not work with the local network as soon as you land, especially after crossing oceans.

Regional Information

For the latest, up-to-date information regarding key regions, click on the links below:

AFRICA

EAST ASIA PACIFIC

EUROPE EURASIA

NEAREAST

SOUTH CENTRAL ASIA

WESTERN HEMISPHERE

Sources for this document include, but are not limited to:  iJet, CNBC.com, CNN.com, USAToday.com, MayoClinic.com

 

For pre-trip information: Assist America members may directly access travel information via the Assist America website, www.assistamerica.com. Log in using your Assist America ID/Reference number.

Interested in learning more about Assist America? Please visit us at www.assistamerica.com. Tell a fellow traveler about the newsletter and show them how to subscribe online! Interested in having your organization becoming a member of Assist America? Please e-mail us at sales@assistamerica.com.

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