As they planned their trip to Italy, Joel and Meredith Vela kept hearing from friends who’d been there: “Don’t worry about learning Italian – everyone there speaks English!”
Nevertheless, Joel got an audio course to learn the basics. The best parts of the trip were off the beaten track, in little villages where almost nobody spoke any English.
The misconception that everyone everywhere speaks English is one of many that can get in the way of the perfect trip. Personal-injury attorney Stephen Boutros recently discovered another one: A hotel’s “lowest available room rate” isn’t necessarily so. He discovered that by entering “hotel promo code” in Google you can find codes that will reduce your rate by as much as 30 percent.
We asked our readers for questions and consulted with the experts to separate fact from fiction.
Have any more travel-related questions? Send them to Travel Buzz at (firstname.lastname@example.org) travel (at) thebuzzmagazines (dot) com, and we’ll bust through the myths for you.
1. Myth: It doesn’t matter where on the plane you sit.
Truth: Studies show that seats in the back have a higher survival rate. Popular Mechanics magazine analyzed 36 years of National Transportation Safety Board crash data and found that passengers near the tail are about 40 percent more likely to survive a crash than those in the first few rows. Last year, the NTSB conducted its own study, crashing a plane in the Mexican desert.
“The nose and cockpit buckled under the airplane and was basically run over by the aircraft,” NTSB survivability expert Thomas Barth told ABC News. “The first 10 rows of seats were completely destroyed. And the rest of the fuselage remained intact.”
2. Myth: It’s best to use travelers’ checks when you go to a foreign country, or change your money in advance.
Truth: Don’t bother with travelers’ checks, writes Melinda Page at Budget Travel. It’s inconvenient. If you need cash on hand when you arrive, you can sometimes get a good rate at your bank – check to be sure. The best bet is to use ATM machines from banks that partner with yours; Bank of America, for instance, offers free withdrawals from ATMS at partner banks all over the world. It does, however, charge a hefty fee for using the competition. Credit cards are a good bet, but most charge a foreign transaction fee; Capital One levies no fees for international transactions.
3. Myth: Always drink bottled instead of tap water when you’re overseas.
Truth: In Europe and most other developed countries, tap water might be even cleaner than bottled; as much as 40 percent of bottled water is simply repackaged tap water, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In Mexico and other less developed countries, check with the locals or your hotel; this varies by region, and some hotels have their own water-treatment systems. In Los Cabos, Mexico, the water source is the aquifers in the mountains, where it is piped to many of the hotels and then treated with sediment filtering, carbon filters, ultraviolet light and chlorination, according to Phil Saunders, director of property operations at Hilton Los Cabos. The water at this hotel and many others is tested monthly by a certified lab to verify the water quality.
4. Myth: It’s important to buy the insurance coverage when you rent a car.
Truth: If you have a good comprehensive auto-insurance policy, and you’re in the United States or one of its territories, you’re probably already covered, said attorney Boutros, who works on insurance cases. “Of course it’s really good to visit with your agent or your insurer; make that call and just ask them.”
Things get more complicated, however, once you go abroad. State Farm, for example, covers some parts of Canada, but not other countries. American Express offers rental-car insurance coverage in some foreign countries for a monthly fee, but be sure to read the fine print. The policy must be in place at the moment you are renting the car, or it doesn’t apply.
5. Myth: Recirculated cabin air makes you sick.
Truth: A crowded airplane is no more germ-laden than other enclosed spaces, writes commercial pilot Patrick Smith in his “Ask the Pilot” column for Salon.com. Recirculated air is mixed with fresh air from compressors and passes through hospital-quality filters. “Boeing says between 94 and 99.9 percent of airborne microbes are captured, and there’s a total changeover of air every two or three minutes — far more frequently than occurs in offices, movie theaters, or classrooms,” writes Smith.
6. Myth: Buy your airline tickets as soon as possible to save the most money.
Truth: If you’re shopping for tickets for a trip in July, it’s too soon, says Rick Seany, CEO of FareCompare. “Shop for summer vacation about three months before departure, up until about a month before take-off,” he writes. “If you shop too early, you’ll pay a mid-range price, and won’t get the better deals the airlines begin pushing out three months out to start filling their summer seats.” The best way, however, is to sign up for fare alerts at a fare-watching site like farecompare.com.
7. Myth: It doesn’t matter what day you book your flight.
Truth: The best day is Tuesday, says Seany, and he’s even more specific: Tuesday about 2 p.m. Central Time. Typically, weekends are the worst times to shop.
8. Myth: Using your cell phone or iPad will crash the plane.
Truth: No aviation authorities have found conclusive evidence that cellular signals affect the plane’s communications, navigation, or flight control, according to Peter Greenberg, travel editor at CBS News. “Just recently, the FAA even gave American Airlines pilots permission to use iPads in the cockpit,” he writes at PeterGreenberg.com. “But the bans on electronics won’t be lifted without extensive – and expensive – testing. The bottom line is, you still need to follow the existing rules, so put those electronics away.”
9. Myth: The magnetic strips on your hotel-room keys contain your credit card and other personal information and can be used for identity theft.
Truth: This notion apparently originated in 2003, when an overzealous Pasadena (Calif.) Police Department detective sent an e-mail around based on a misunderstanding, according to Snopes.com. In 2006, Computerworld magazine examined 100 hotel room cards and found no personally identifiable information.
10. Myth: Rule 240 requires airlines to compensate travelers for expenses incurred due to missed connections, and/or fly them to their destination on the next available flight.
Truth: Conde Nast Portfolio’s Joe Brancatelli says the Federal Aviation Administration rule was ditched with deregulation in 1978; CBS’ Peter Greenberg asserts the rule survived deregulation. Chris Elliott, travel consumer writer for National Geographic Traveler and CNN, says the truth lies somewhere between. Each airline has its own rule, and he encourages fliers to read the contract to know for sure – but these can change at any time.
Budget Travel offers a quick summary followed by a handy list of links to the airline policies, so you can check before you fly: budgettravel.com/blog/rule-240-is-a-travelers-myth,9634.
11. Myth: The cruise ship’s own day-trip excursions provide the best deal.
Truth: Cruise-carrier package tours are more convenient, but they’re almost never cheaper, writes Chris Gray Faust in Budget Travel. Typically, it’s much cheaper to book your own. She cites Norwegian Cruise Line, which charges $99 to take you from the dock in Civitavecchia into Rome for a driving tour and two hours of exploring time. A similar round-trip bus transfer from a private operator such as smartcruisetours.com starts around $16. She suggests that if you’d still like a guide or driver, you can find fellow passengers to share expenses on websites such as CruiseCritic.com.
12. Myth: Travel agents are obsolete in the age of do-it-yourself booking.
Truth: You can sometimes find a cheaper price online. But given their expertise in finding the deals while meeting your special needs, travel agents can save you big bucks in the long run, as Aja Stallworth, a leisure travel consultant in San Diego, told Daily Finance magazine. The typical agent fee of $35 is often offset by other savings or perks the agent negotiates for you, Stallworth said. And a good travel agent will go to bat for you if problems should arise.
Also, travel agents don’t always charge a fee, says Nora McMordie of Rogers Travel in Memorial. Most agents, like McMordie, usually charge a fee only for air-only bookings, and many booking sites, including Travelocity and Orbitz, now add a fee to a ticket price as well, typically between $7 and $ 14.
13. Myth: Buying online is always cheaper.
Truth: If do-it-yourself is more your style, be sure and read the fine print, warns Ralph Cooper of Frosch Travel in Houston. If you’re reserving a hotel room, it might be worth $20 more if it includes breakfast for two, or free drinks at the hotel bar. The pricier tour might include transport from the airport, and the cheaper one may not. Always make sure all taxes and fees are included – especially with airfare. “Make sure you’re comparing apples and apples,” said Cooper.