Travel tips

Hotels getting hacked + CDC Zika virus alert

sleeping on airplanes

Two stories I worked on for NBC News this week are tied to news about extra precautions travelers need to take while on the road.

For a story about hotels where data breaches and data-stealing malware have put guests’ credit card and other important information at risk, I talked to data security experts and checked up on what major chains, including Hyatt, Hilton , Starwood, Mandarin Oriental, Trump and others were doing to find and put a stop to the hacking.

Two babies

And in this story about the CDC’s travel alert about the Zika virus, I explored just the beginnings of the toll the tourism industry may take from advisories urging pregnant women and those hoping to be pregnant to take avoid traveling to areas of Latin America and The Caribbean where the virus has been spreading.

Health officials aren’t yet sure why, but believe the Zika virus can cause a catastrophic birth defect called microcephaly.

Tips for stress-free holiday travel

Thanksgiving postcard turkey


During the holidays, fog, snow, extreme weather, long lines at security checkpoints and other challenges may conspire to leave you stuck at the airport longer than you planned – or ever imagined.

No need to let a delay ruin your trip. Here are some tips to help time fly by.

Get ready for battle

The best offense is a good defense and this applies all the more when traveling during the holidays. Try to get a good night’s sleep before your flight so you arrive at the airport on-time, well-rested and ready for anything. Pack snacks, a little “mad money” and your good humor.

Make technology your co-pilot

Sign up for airline flight alerts and have them sent by phone, email and/or text message. More than one delivery method can’t hurt. On Twitter, “follow” your airline and all airports on your itinerary. Increasingly, Twitter is where news, updates and alerts appear first.

Re-confirm your flight online and get a boarding pass 24 hours before your flight. Mobile boarding passes are great, but print a paper copy just in case.

Checkpoint savvy

Prepare for the security checkpoint “experience” by making sure you and your carry-on are TSA-ready. Review the prohibited items list at, see if you qualify for TSA PreCheck and remember there are now rules that expedite the checkpoint passage for kids 12 and younger and adults 75 and older.

Access the amenities

Many airports now have their own apps and robust websites to guide you to upscale shops, fine-dining restaurants and bars offering everything from wine and tequila flights to massages.

During the holidays, airports often offer entertainment by carolers and musical groups, There may be photo ops with Santa and his elves, complimentary gift-wrapping, and free candy canes or other treats. Retail shops at the airport may also offer special discounts. Travelers should check the airport’s website in advance to see what they may be able to take advantage of.

Here are some other ways to make good use of your time stuck at the airport:

  • Get Cultured: These days, temporary and permanent art exhibits are found at almost every airport. There’s often a brochure to guide you, but sometimes you simply have to look around.
  • Stay Healthy: Medical clinics at O’Hare in Chicago, Hartsfield Atlanta and other airports offer flu shots for those on the go.
  • Stretch: San Francisco and Dallas-Fort Worth International airports have special spaces set aside for yoga, with loaner mats included.
  • Burn Calories: Bring you own pedometer or look for the mileage markings on walking paths inside airports in Indianapolis, Atlanta, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Baltimore, New Orleans and elsewhere. And don’t forget your sneakers.

(My story: Stree-Free Holiday Travel Starts at the Airport first appeared on Travel Guard)


Tidbits for travelers: tips and useful tools


It’s hard to stay up to date on all the changes you might encounter at airports and on airplanes these days.

Cheat sheets come in handy.

In a blog post titled “Expedited airport security: We all want it but how do we get it?,” GateGuru put together a good run-down on how to get qualified to use the TSA’s expedited security lines at airports.

The take-away: you can pay to join some programs; you must qualify for others, but if you get ‘in’ you’ll save some time and hassle at many – but not all – airports.

And in a column “Handy Tips From Those in the Know,” in the New York Times, Joe Sharkey shares some great travel tips from expert travelers.

The take-away: In addition to reminding us to steer clear of the Cinnabons and to always wear clean underwear to the airport because “You never know when you’re going to get strip-searched,” Sharkey includes a travel tip from Christopher Schaberg, whose book “The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight” (Continuum, 2011), is sitting here on my desk. “Pay attention not only to public art in airports, but also to your own place within, no matter how grim or humble a concourse might seem,” said Schaberg. “Think of your time spent in the airport as an art walk of sorts. You are actually part of a giant, living art piece, the architectural matrix and social swirl that we recognize as airport life.”

Sharkey didn’t ask for a travel tip from me, but if he had I would have told him: When you’re stuck at the airport, don’t just sit there, poke around. That’s how I found some wonderful art and history exhibits, my favorite skirt and shops selling everything from used books to locally-crafted treasures. And: don’t forget to look out the window.

Sleeping on airplanes

Some people have no trouble falling asleep on airplanes.

“They sit down, close the window shade and immediately go to sleep. It doesn’t look like they need any help at all,” said Carol Landis, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who researches sleep and the health consequences of disturbed sleep.

Others just stay awake on airplanes no matter what. “Maybe it’s because of an underlying anxiety about the reason for the trip, or about flying, or because they’re trying to sleep sitting up rather than lying down,” said Landis.

But squeezing in even a short in-flight cat nap can make a big difference in your trip. “You’ll feel like a new person when you wake up,” said Sara C. Mednick, author of “Take a Nap! Change Your Life” and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “All studies show the more you sleep, the better.”

But how can you catch those 40 winks while squeezed in a metal tube going more than 400 mph?

Landis and Mednick agree on the basics.

“Don’t drink caffeinated coffee, tea, soda or eat chocolate or anything else with caffeine for six to eight hours before a flight and during it,” said Landis. Bring along earplugs and an eyeshade to block out light and sound. And pack a pillow and a blanket. “Your body temperature drops when you sleep,” said Mednick, “so being sufficiently warm is important.”

Thinking of taking a sleeping pill? Think twice. “We usually discourage sleeping medications,” said Dr. Flavia Consens, an associate professor at the University of Washington in the departments of neurology and anesthesiology and pain medicine who is a specialist in sleep medicine. “There’s less oxygen while you’re flying, and these medications lessen your drive to breathe. There’s also a concern that when travelers take these pills they don’t move around, and on a long flight, that increases the chances of DVT or deep vein thrombosis,” the formation of blood clots known sometimes as economy class syndrome.

To help passengers snooze, some airlines offer a variety of onboard sleep aids, including mood lighting, “do not disturb” stickers and other amenities.

“Right now the industry standard in long-haul business class is seats that can be turned into horizontal beds,” said Raymond Kollau, founder of “And for some economy class fliers, Air New Zealand offers the ‘Skycouch,’ which is three standard economy seats which can be changed into a single horizontal space.”

On late night departures, All Nippon Airways (ANA) hands out ‘Sleep Support Kits’ that include aromatherapy cards (‘Relax’ and ‘Refresh’) that emit a lavender or an ‘ANA Original Aroma’ scent when a small button is pressed. “And British Airways offers sleep advice podcasts from sleep expert Chris Idzikowski, aka Dr. Sleep, on its in-flight entertainment system and on its website,” said Kollau.

Podcasts and other audio programs that may help you sleep might soon be a regular feature on other airline entertainment systems as well. At the recent Airline Passenger Experience Association conference in Seattle, IFE Services announced that it is now the exclusive seller of the pzizz sleep system to airlines. The software application creates audio soundtracks that promise to either induce a power nap of between 10 and 90 minutes or a deep sleep of up to 10 hours.

If the program is offered for free, it can’t hurt to give it a try, but sleep experts say you’d be better off spending your money on an upgrade instead of a pre-recorded program.

“There’s no research that shows these special programs work,” said Mednick. “There’s music you learn to listen to that might help you sleep, but there’s no music that’s a sleep inducer.”

Instead, Mednick suggests bringing some of your sleep rituals from home with you onto the airplane. “Brush your teeth, change your clothes, and get into something that resembles pajamas. We are creatures of habit, so if you can create or simulate the sleep habits you have at home, the more your body will respond.”

(This originally appeared on Travel’s Overhead Bin)

Zombies happen. Pack a travel emergency ‘go kit.’

Tsunami Museum

From the Pacific Tsunami Museum in Hilo, Hawaii

If you happened to be on the road – in a hotel, a convention center or, of course, in an airport – when some sort of disaster strikes, would you know what to do? And would you have the right tools and supplies with you so that you could do what you needed to do?

I wasn’t confident I would.

But after talking with experts and savvy travelers about the ideal contents of an emergency ‘go kit’ for this story on – Disasters prompt world travelers to be prepared – I’m feeling more confident about dealing with everything from tsunamis to zombies when I’m on the road.

Here’s the story:

When an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck Chile at around 3:30 a.m. in February 2010, Seattle-based wine importer Ryan Sytsma was asleep in a Sheraton hotel somewhere between the airport and downtown Santiago.

Once he realized it wasn’t a train shaking the room, Sytsma jumped out of bed and stood in the bathroom doorway.

“It kept getting worse,” he said. “Soon the electrical outlets started throwing sparks, anything unsecured was falling over and smoke filled the room. I could only see flashes of light, hear explosions like bombs and smell smoke that was a mix of drywall dust, burning plastic and melting rubber.”

Sytsma survived the three-minute temblor unscathed and raced out of his hotel room with his passport, cash, shoes and his small suitcase, which was already packed and near the door.

Those items, and the extra shirts and dozen Power Bars packed in the suitcase, helped ease the post-earthquake experience a bit for Sytsma and the people he ended up with. And now Sytsma makes sure to pack for every trip with disaster preparedness in mind.

Good idea, say the experts. A well-stocked emergency “go kit” can arm a traveler with tools that may help keep a bad travel situation from turning into a full-blown disaster.

“Given the recent events in Japan, Egypt and other places that appeared as low to insignificant on the risk map last year, a lot of people are rethinking their preparedness,” said Alex Puig, regional security director for International SOS, a global medical and security assistance company. “We’re not asking people to go above and beyond what common sense dictates. But anything can happen, and preparation is the most important thing you can do.”

Be prepared
Snow, rain or even a computer glitch, as Alaska/Horizon passengers learned this past weekend, may delay your plane for hours or days. You may get stung by a jellyfish, mugged by thug or knocked unconscious by a falling coconut. Then there are earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, pandemics or political upheaval to deal with.

Of course, many travelers will never experience an emergency while on the road. And danger can also find you close to home.

But for those who want to be prepared, what should go in an emergency kit?

“A good police whistle, two glow sticks, a small roll of wide adhesive tape to prevent hotel doors from closing, and $100 in local currency in small denominations,” said Noel Koch, senior director of travel intelligence for the travel risk management company NC4.

Koch considers a smartphone, with a reliable service provider, essential as well. “In the case of Japan, a smartphone would have given the traveler the ability to get information on how to book a flight out of Tokyo,” he said. “In the case of Egypt, travelers could have gotten information via Twitter to find out what was happening with the protests.”

Medications, both prescribed and over-the-counter, belong in your kit as well. “Take enough for your trip and an extra supply in case you get delayed or stuck someplace for a certain length of time,” said Myles Druckman, vice-president of medical services for International SOS. “You can’t assume you’ll be able to find the same medications you have at home. And some over-the-counter medicines may be prepared or branded differently than you’re used to at home.”

Puig adds that you go should always have items that allow you to travel and communicate. That includes a copy of your passport (with another copy saved in e-mail or another electronically accessible way), a cell phone you know will work in any country you’re visiting and a calling card to use if your cell phone dies or is stolen. “None of that really requires a lot of extra effort,” he said.

Make room for these items
Beyond the basics, you may want to add some of these items to your “go kit.”

Beth Whitman, founder of Wanderlust and Lipstick, used to carry a water purifier only on her international trips. “Now I won’t leave home without it even to a destination with drinkable tap water because I realize it would be perfect if water supplies were compromised,” said Whitman.

When she travels to West Africa, nature writer Susan McGrath takes a folding mosquito tent and beeswax earplugs in case she finds herself in a village with a community loudspeaker that plays bad pop music 24/7. She also always takes along a headlamp. “I did get stranded in Nigeria during a countrywide shut down and lived briefly in the Lagos Hilton on my emergency kit,” said McGrath. “And when the power went off in the very crowded airport at 11 p.m., I was pretty well equipped not to panic.”

When publisher Jessica Voights travels with her wheelchair, her “go kit” includes the phone number and address of a mobility organization or store that can help in case of an emergency and/or equipment failure, extra batteries, adapters and converters for medical devices, extra copies of prescriptions “and letters from doctors explaining my medical conditions and equipment needs.”

And Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, editor of, keeps a few quart- and gallon-size Ziploc bags in her “go kit” as well as “phone numbers and policy numbers for my car and health insurance, customer service numbers for credit cards and contact numbers for my family’s doctors and pediatrician.”

Pre-packed kits and emergency quarters
At, which sells a wide variety of travel and trial-size items, miniature rolls of duct tape, individual packets of water purifier and glow sticks are listed under the “Survival” tab. Pre-packaged “personal care” kits filled with three days’ worth of water, food and other basics supplies are there, too. Company co-founder Paul Shrater said that since the Japanese disaster, he’s gotten a lot of inquiries from companies and agencies seeking to stock up on those emergency kits but few calls from vacationers seeking to create their own travel-versions of the kits.

“If you really stock it correctly and think of all the things you really need, you start getting up there in terms of weight and size,” said Shrater.

That’s why Puig of International SOS urges worried travelers to sit down and make a plan. “Do an analysis of who you are, how you travel and what the risks are in the country you’ll be traveling to,” Puig said. “Ask yourself how well prepared you’d be if you were in Cairo when the demonstrations broke out or in Japan after the earthquake. What are the things you’d need to have to be prepared?”

Mitch Ahern of technology consulting firm Cantina is prepared. He carries a roll of quarters in his travel emergency kit for late nights at airports or trade show set-ups when dinner may come from a vending machine. Ahern said the quarters have a dual purpose. “I have it on excellent authority that a roll of quarters in a sock makes an excellent zombie-stopper when applied with force to the head!”