Rules

Leave the airport, visit a park

Does a bear sh#t in the woods? Depends on which woods.

Glacier National Park visitors 1960

My Well Mannered Traveler column on msnbc.com this is week is all about What’s OK, what’s not in national and state parks. Even some well-seasoned travelers don’t know the ins and outs. But if you don’t check out the rules before you head off into the woods you can end up in a heap of trouble.

Wendy Peck of Winnipeg, Manitoba found that out at the beginning of her two-month park-centric visit to the United States. She had her heart set on poking around the national parks in Arizona and Utah, hiking and camping with Amie, her black lab.

“That plan quickly fell apart,” says Peck, who discovered that most every national park in the United States prohibits dogs on back-country trails. “We were usually restricted to asphalt views. It was very disappointing.”

But Peck figured out that many national parks have state parks just down the road that usually offer much of the same landscapes and more pet-friendly policies.  “I found that by switching my focus to state parks, that I actually had a better time. Far fewer people, much more freedom, and some pretty cool sights that most others just don’t see. “

Peck’s vacation was saved, but rules about what is — or is not — allowed in state and national parks have ended up ruining or mangling trips for many other travelers.

Want to avoid those surprises?  Here’s some advice from park officials and outdoor enthusiasts.

Bugs and bunnies, shorelines and cemeteries

Figuring out what is – or is not – a National Park Service property can be confusing. National Park Service properties around the country encompass 392 areas, or “units” with 80 million acres of land and more than a dozen different, and often confusing, designations.

Those “units” include 58 traditional national parks, such as Yosemite, Yellowstone and Bryce Canyon, but also about 150 historic sites and battlefields, as well as national monuments and memorials, national historical parks, national seashores, national parkways and national recreation areas, including man-made lakes such as Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam.

“Yes, we know we have some identity issues out there,” says David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service, “But you can divide the areas we manage into two piles: half of them preserve natural resources — bugs and bunnies — the other half preserves cultural resources, which represent the history of America.”

They may all be managed by the same agency, but the same rules don’t apply in each location. “There are places where a dog needs to be on a leash,” Barna says, “and places where that rule doesn’t apply.” Likewise, while personal watercraft (i.e. Jet Skis) are not allowed in the 58 national parks, those vehicles are allowed on recreational lakes and at some offshore national seashore areas managed by the park service. “It depends on what classification the areas fall under,” add Barna.

And then there are the seemingly site-specific rules. “For example, all boats entering Lake Powell [which stretches from Arizona to Utah] must be certified to be free of zebra mussels prior to launching. And in Maine’s Acadia National Park, visitors can’t bring firewood from home due to the threat of invasive insects,” says Dan Wulfman of Tracks & Trails, a company that organizes national park driving vacations.

How to navigate park rules

Kurt Repanshek of National Parks Traveler urges park visitors to study the National Park Service website long before leaving home. “Each park unit has its own website, but the content varies greatly. So don’t rely on that alone. If you don’t see information about the specific activity you’re interested in, make a phone call.”

And if you find the national park rules too restricting, don’t despair. It may just mean that a state park is a better match for you and your vacation style. “State parks,” says Shannon Andrea of the National Parks Conservation Association, “have less national significance and almost always allow for some form of active recreation such as bike riding, swimming, hiking, fishing, camping or horseback riding as part of their mission.”

Or maybe a visit to a National Forest is what you need. Myrna Johnson, a Boston-based outdoor enthusiast and urban open space professional, says National Forests “tend to be a little less traveled than National Parks and offer great backcountry opportunities for those who are looking for a slightly more rugged experience.”

Pay to play

National Park Service visitor pass

Whether you set out for a national or a state park, don’t forget to bring along your wallet. Of the 392 National Park Service properties, 130 currently charge some sort of entrance and/or amenities use fee. So consider investing in an $80 annual America the Beautiful Pass. There are some restrictions, but the pass covers a full year of entrance fees for a carload of up to four adults at National Park Service sites and at sites managed by agencies such as the USDA Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management. (U.S. citizens and permanent residents ages 62 or over can get a lifetime pass good for that same carload for just $10.) The America the Beautiful Pass won’t cover entry fees at state parks, but y states offer their own annual passes, which can be an equally good deal.

And it’s always a good idea to call ahead. National Parks have not experienced budget cuts this year, but many state parks have. So make sure the park you want to visit will be open when you show up at the gate.

(Photos courtesy National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.)

The DOT’s new 3-hour rule: what you need to know

(Denver Airport – courtesy Gregory Thow)

A new set of DOT rules go into effect today promising a wide variety of protections for airline travelers.  As I outlined in an msnbc.com column, Something for everyone in the DOT rules, these regulations offer quite a bit more than just the assurance that passengers will be let off a plane if a delay stretches into the three-hour range.

Here’s just a bit of what you need to know:

Stuck on an airplane?

With a few security-related exemptions, an airline must now let you off  a plane by the three-hour point of a tarmac delay.  After two hours, though, the DOT now requires airlines to offer you some water and a little something – maybe pretzels or a granola bar – to eat.  Even if you’re on one of those small, regional carriers.

Each airline must also now have contingency plans in place and those plans need to be posted on an airline’s website. Airlines have more leeway with these plans for international flights – so comparing plans before you buy tickets could be useful.

Got a beef?

To make sure you can file a complaint, airlines must now post e-mail, Web and snail-mail addresses on their Web sites, e-ticket confirmations, and at ticket counters and boarding gates. And no more sending those complaints to the ‘circular file.’ The DOT now requires airlines to answer your complaint within 60 days.

There’s more.  So I urge you read the full column – Something for everyone in the DOT rules – so you know what to expect.

Don’t worry, be happy

And, for those of you worried that the three-hour rule means you’ll be marooned at an airport once you’re let off a delayed plane, airport officials say: “Don’t worry.”

Airport directors I spoke with for a USATODAY.com column – Are airports ready for the three hour rule? – say most every airport, even small ones currently excluded from the new DOT rules, has plans and equipment in place to help airlines comply with the new rules and to accommodate passengers let back into the terminal after a 3-hour delay.

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.

Get ready to start getting to the airport even earlier

Late Thursday afternoon  (January 14, 2010) Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano released a(nother) new statement about additional aviation security precautions being rolled out at the nation’s airports.

What will those new precautions entail?

According to Napolitano’s statement, “…Some of these measures include enhanced random screening, additional federal air marshals on certain routes and adding individuals of concern to our terrorist watch list system.”

None of that sounds all that new. But on the ground, says a TSA spokesperson, that means that, depending on what airport you’re in, you might notice “an increase in measures such as…behavioral detection officers and a wider use of tools like explosive trace detection.  Not just at the checkpoint but throughout the airport environment.”

The bottom line, says Napolitano: “…travelers should allot extra time when flying…”

Allotting extra time, of course, means getting to the airport even earlier than you do now.

But even with all these new procedures, it’s a fair bet that your trip through the security checkpoint will go smoothly and you’ll end up just hanging around the airport waiting for your flight.

If you’re at Miami International Airport (MIA) this Saturday, January 16th, you can spend that extra time watching a fashion show in the Central Terminal (On Departure Level, Terminal G by the $10 Boutique).

The show will last for an hour, from 1:30 to 2:30, and feature women’s, men’s and children’s clothing and accessories from a variety of airport vendors. There will also be sampling of Toblerone chocolate, and a performance by Venezuelan composer, producer and singer Claudio Corsi, who now lives in the Miami area.

Not planning on being at Miami International Airport this Saturday?  If you’re across country at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), you can fritter away a few extra hours playing pinball – for free.

The free pinball machines are part of SFO’s exhibit about the history of pinball that will be on view through April 2010.

Tune up: airline instrument policies

Thanks to a YouTube video that’s gone viral, millions of people around the world now know that in March 2008, United Airlines baggage handlers broke Dave Carroll’s guitar. Instead of just admitting it and paying for the repairs, the airline kept telling the musician to go away.

He didn’t.  He made a video and the rest, as they say, is music and social media history.  United Airlines changed its tune, promised to do better in the future and, when Carroll refused compensation, donated $3,000 to non-profit music foundation in his name.

Does that mean United and other airlines now won’t break anyone’s guitar? Don’t count on it.  But now everyone is paying more attention to how instruments on airplanes are handled.

Want to make sure your instrument arrives safely? Here’s a video and some tips from the folks at Taylor Guitars and the American Federation of Musicians:

  • Know your airline’s policy on transporting instruments. Look it up on the airline’s Web site, print it out and take it with you. “Many flight attendants do not know their own airline’s policy regarding carry-on guitars. If you can calmly explain that your instrument is within their mandated guidelines, and actually show them those guidelines, you will be way ahead of the game.”
  • Each airline has a maximize size for carry-on items, measured by linear inches. On many airlines, including Continental, American, and United, the limit is 45 linear inches.  So know your instrument’s size in linear inches.  That’s the sum of the length, width and height of your travel case.  “In many cases, even though your instrument case does not fit in the ‘size wise’ metal contraption at the gate, it might still be within the linear-inch maximum.”
  • Carry a fabric tape measure with you.  It can come in handy if you’re challenged about your dimensions of your instrument case.

For more on this topic, see my Well Mannered Traveler column on MSNBC.com: Get in tune with your airline’s instrument policy.

Guide to airline ‘swine flu’ refunds

question-markIf you’re still trying to figure out whether or not you’re going to take that scheduled trip to Mexico, one of the variables is certainly the policy set forth by your airline.  Will they refund your ticket price? Waive the change fee? Allow you to go Montreal instead of Mexico City?question-markDuring the initial flu-frenzy, many airlines set and then revised their policies, in most cases extending the dates during which they’d waive change fees.

For a round-up of the airline swine flu change policies as of Friday, May 1st, 2009, see this handy chart put together by the folks at Airfarewatchdog.com.

Keep in mind, though, that policies might be in flux and that many airlines have announced significant cuts in their scheduled flights to and from Mexico even since this list was put together.

So, as always, the advice is – check your airline’s Web site and/or call to get the latest information.  Then – check again.

Source: Airfarewatchdog.com May 1, 2009

Airline

Original Travel Dates

Changes allowed during these dates

Voucher valid for alternate destination?

Comments

Aeromexico 4/24 – 12/10/09 4/24 – 5/15/09 Not Specified A US$150 fee for No Shows may apply for some Intl cities.
Air Canada 4/28 – 5/31/09 Up to 5/31/09 Not Specified Suspending all operations to Cancun, Cozumel, and Puerto Vallarta until June 1st.
Air Tran 4/29 – 5/15/09 4/29 – 5/15/09 Not Specified Call AirTran directly to change travel to/from Cancun.
Alaska 4/27 – 5/20/09 4/27 – 5/20/09 Yes Possible credit if new destination fare is lower than original ticket.
American 4/25 – 5/31/09 Not Specified Yes Non-refundable fares will be refunded via a travel voucher.
Continental 4/24 – 5/31/09 Not Specified Yes If traveling on a OnePass Reward, call Continental to rebook.
Copa 4/24 – 5/15/09 Not Specified Yes Add’l fees may apply for revised itineraries starting May 30th and beyond.
Delta 4/26 – 5/16/09 Not Specified Call Delta Canceled ticket may be used to purchase a new ticket good for travel one year from original travel date.
Frontier 4/27 – 5/16/09 4/27 – 5/16/09 Not specified Those already enroute to Mexico, your adjusted return date must occur by May 20th. Otherwise, revised travel must be completed within 30 days of original travel date.
JetBlue 4/25 – 5/15/09 5/01 – 5/15/09 Yes Revised travel dates must occur no later than May 20th.
Mexicana 4/24 – 5/06/09 Not Specified Not Specified Refund by travel voucher valid for one year from date of issue.
Northwest 4/26 – 5/16/09 Not Specified Not Specified Use NWA.com “Mange My Reservations” to change your flight.
Spirit 4/24 – 5/15/09 Not Specified Yes Non-refundable fares will be refunded via travel voucher, good for one year from original ticket’s date of issue.
Sun Country 4/27 – 5/16/09 Not Specified No Starting 4/29/09, those passengers departing Cancun will undergo a breif temperature and flu symptom check.
Taca 4/24 – 5/06/09 Not Specified Yes New travel dates must occur within one year excluding Dec. 10-24, 2009 and Jan. 2-10, 2010.
United 4/26 – 5/31/09 Not Specified Not Specified Call United to make any changes to your purchased ticket.
US Airways 4/24 – 5/31/09 Not Specified Yes If changing destination, travel must originate within 14 days of original departure date. US Airways has revised its policy and now allows departure after 14 days from original departure date but does not specify when alternate travel must be completed by (most likely within one year of original departure).
USA3000 4/25 – 5/13/09 Not Specified Yes Revised travel must end by Dec. 15, 2009.
WestJet 4/28 – 6/20/09 Not Specified Will provide full refund Service to Mexico ends 5/4/09. Flights resume 6/20/09.