A Time to Travel

A phrase we hear a lot, and one that keeps trying to work its way from my brain on to the page, is "at times like these." It doesn't work, though, because we've never had times like these: hijacked jetliners flown deliberately into famous buildings, a nation fearful of opening its mail or breathing the air of its work spaces, and the skies over our cities patrolled by war planes.

The bad news keeps coming thick and fast. Stories that would otherwise lead the evening TV news - such as the predicted failure of United Airlines by the guy who runs it- are relegated almost to an "Oh, by the way" status.

People are afraid. Real estate sellers in our small, southern Oregon town tell us there is a new motivation behind the rush of buyers coming here from major California cities - fear of terrorist attacks.

Yes, this is uncharted territory, a place we've never been before, and it's understandable that overseas travel has lost some of its appeal. Overseas, in large part, means Europe. Half the 24 million Americans who vacationed abroad last year went to the continent. We spent $65 billion there and traveled more in Europe than the Germans, who, it should be noted, were already there.

Such numbers, however, are on the way down. Even before September 11, travel to Europe was soft and it has declined since then. Nielsen/Net Ratings report a 23% drop in travel-related on-line spending from August to September. Italy says travel from the U.S. is down 25%.

What surprises and encourages me, however, is that it isn't worse. If one of four Americans is canceling travel plans to Italy, three out of four - 75% - are still going.

Our own experience is equally upbeat; since September 11 not a single subscriber has asked us to stop sending Gemütlichkeit. Naturally, our travel booking department has had a handful of rail and air tickets returned as well as car rental cancellations, but in most of these cases the travelers had no choice, their flights to Europe had been canceled.

The travelers I've spoken with are concerned but pragmatic: traveling in Europe is a bargain, its venues are uncrowded, transatlantic air travel is inexpensive and extremely safe, and the hotels, airports, rail stations, streets and roads of the towns and cities of Germany, Austria and Switzerland are probably the most secure in the world. Many of you have rightly concluded it's a great time to go. And who wins when we stay home solely out of fear?

One question now is whether the trip across the Atlantic will remain cheap - currently $250 to $600 roundtrip, depending on gateway and destination. Many flights have been discontinued and several major airlines are in deep trouble. Prices are low now because demand for overseas flights does not equal supply. That is changing.

Austrian Airlines, which now carries armed sky marshals on all flights serving North America, has suspended service to Chicago, Miami and Toronto. At the end of October, a dying Swissair had stopped service to Atlanta, San Francisco, and Newark, and dropped its American Airlines code-share flight from Dallas.

CEO James Goodwin of United, by far America's biggest overseas carrier, has told his employees the airline may "perish sometime next year." And airline analysts we've spoken with wonder how much longer US Airways and Continental can carry on.

A new Swiss national airline will apparently be built on the ruins of Swissair. Coming to the rescue are the Swiss government, a couple of banks and three of the country's largest companies, including Nestle. What the new airline will be called and which U.S. markets it will serve was not known at press time.

With all this going on, caution must be used when booking and paying for travel. The advice of consumer experts is to pay for all travel products, especially airline tickets, with a credit card. If the travel service purchased is not ultimately provided, the credit card company must in most circumstances refund your money. There is, however, some fine print. For example, tickets purchased far in advance of the travel date may not be covered. Check with the credit card company.

Travel insurance is also recommended. You can purchase coverage offered by a tour operator or cruise company but you'll get nothing if the company declares bankruptcy. To protect against travel supplier bankruptcy, buy trip insurance from a third party insurance company such as Travel Guard International or Allianz. These policies insure against travel company default. Understand, however that the travel supplier must declare bankruptcy for you to be covered.

(In a rather amazing public relations move, Travel Guard International has been paying claims to travelers who simply say they are now afraid to fly.)

With the possible demise of some major airlines, persons with substantial frequent flyer miles may want to consider insuring those miles. Such coverage is available from PrivilegeFlyer's AwardGuard program (tel. 800-487-8893, www.privlegeflyer.com). Cost is $119 per year for one person and $79 for additional family members.

These are unusual times requiring unusual travel strategies. - RHB

November 2001