If you are left-handed, can stand on your head, and agree to depart at 11:52 p.m. on the night of a full moon, then Uranus Airlines has a terrific bargain of a ticket for you.
No, it's not quite that bad. But it often seems so. The various airlines offer a bewildering array of tickets for flying overseas or domestic. Cheap ones. Expensive ones. Prices based on how long you are going to stay, on whether or not you purchase the ticket in advance. Prices based on when you plan to return, even on the particular season of the year. And the deals seem to change with the speed of light.
I don't buy my tickets directly from the airlines. I use a travel agent to help guide me through the maze of prices and conditions. If you want to make your trip easier from the start, you will too.
What makes a good travel agency? The staff is courteous and helpful. Naturally. They don't stay in business very long if they aren't. But I look for more subtle signs and omens.
For instance, I like to watch the way a travel agent plays the computer. Is the agent smooth and fast? Or bumbling and hesitant? There are thousands of flights, thousands of connections to be made, many different kinds of tickets out there--and the computer is the key to your successful booking.
It's reassuring when I find an agile mind that works in harmony with the microprocessor. If I don't, I'll move on.
Easy Flyer. A good travel agent understands that your romantic adventure begins when you land, not when you takeoff. My agents--The Travel Store in Reston, Virginia--try to make the flying experience as easy as they can for their clients.
Example: Along with the ticket, they give me a computer printout of my itinerary. It's on a letter-size piece of paper. It tells me the name of the airline I'm using, the flight number, the time of departure and arrival. Both going and coming.
That's easier than looking at the small confusing print of the ticket itself. And I can make a photocopy for my friends or family so they know my schedule.
A good travel agent will also, when the air carrier allows it, book your seat in advance and provide you with a boarding pass. More on this later.
How to find a travel agent. Word of mouth is best. Do you have a friend who has taken a trip lately? Ask, and ask again. If you must resort to the yellow pages, look for travel agencies that are accredited to their national association.
Your obligations. Travel agencies make their money on small commissions from the airlines. It doesn't cost you anything. (Although some air carriers are cutting back on commissions, which means the charge may be passed on the consumer.) But like many businesses, they depend on rapid turnover.
Travel agents cannot afford to spend an excessive amount of time with any one client. And of course they aren't overjoyed to see clients who can't make up their minds. Or who want to change their tickets after the deal is done.
Before you call or walk into a travel office, you should have a definite outline for your trip. When do you want to leave? How long do you want to stay? Will you take a restrictive ticket (non-refundable, non-changeable) to get a cheaper price? Then let the travel agent help you fill in the blanks.
If you are handy with a computer and know your way around the Internet, you might avoid the travel agent all together and find the best deals for yourself. However, if you are not an experienced overseas traveler, you might want to check out your itinerary with an agent the first couple of times before you start winging it alone.
Travel agents complain that some clients seem unable to grasp the fact that they need more than a driver's license and two pieces of identification to enter another country. You need a...
U.S. passports have gone the way of candy bars since I got my first one thirty years ago. They've become smaller, more expensive, and less tasteful.
The current U.S. passport is a 24-page blue booklet. On the inside cover page is the passport number, your photo, and your date and place of birth. The first five pages are devoted to "Important Information" and "Tips for Travelers." The remaining pages are left blank to accommodate visas and entry and exit stamps.
At this writing a passport costs $55 (or $85 if you want it "expedited"). It's valid for ten years.
When should you apply for a passport? If you plan to travel abroad in the next year or so, you should apply for a passport right now. If your trip is already scheduled, you are behind the curve. You can't be too early when dealing with a bureaucracy. The passport office, by the way, is run by the U.S. State Department.
Leaving in a hurry. In certain cases you can get a passport within a day or two, even within a few hours if you have an urgency. A lot depends on where you apply, at which passport office. But you must show up with the required documentation. To get an expedited passport at the main Washington office, for example, you are asked to produce an airline ticket showing your departure date, in addition to the other required information.
Expedited Passport. I recently renewed my passport in Washington, D.C. Because I was leaving soon, I asked to have it expedited. Here's what thirty bucks extra got me.
First, I filled out the required form. Then I stood in the line marked "Information" for forty-five minutes. The clerk in the information booth examined my form and made sure I had two passport photos, and gave me a number.
I waited three hours for my number to come up. The clerk in the passport booth examined my form. She took my photos. Demanded exactly $85 by check or cash. And told me to come back the next day.
The next day I stood in line again for a long time. (The "will call" window was closed, without explanation.) Two people ahead of me were told that their new passports had been lost. They would have to start over. The clerk's attitude: Tough luck.
Maybe it was just an off day for the passport office. But you get the picture, I believe.
What's required for your first passport? You must apply in person if you are 13 or older. And you must have a certified copy of your birth certificate. What? Yes, a birth certificate. Usually you apply for a birth certificate at your city hall or county offices, where the Recorder of Deeds and so forth are located. If you don't have a birth certificate, you had better have a good reason and show up with a hospital birth record, school records and the such, plus a notarized affidavit by an older blood relative who has personal knowledge of your birth.
If you were born abroad, you need a Certificate of Naturalization, Certificate of Citizenship, Report of Birth Abroad of U.S. Citizens. If you can't produce these, ask the State Department official for other alternatives.
Where to apply for a passport. In the United States, over 2500 courts and 900 post offices accept passport applications. Passport agencies are also located in 13 major cities--Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Stamford (CT), and Washington, D.C. There's bound to be an accepting office close to you, so ask around. The main office is located at:
Washington Passport Agency
1111 19th Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20522-1705.
You can phone their information number and get one of those recorded voices that tell you to push such-and-such button for such-and-such information.
Besides the birth certificate, you need to fill out a form and present two passport photos. The two passport photos are no big deal, just a head-and-shoulders shot like on your driver's license. But a couple of tips:
1) The two photos must be precisely the size required by the passport office (2x2 inches). Therefore, it's better to get your photos made at a shop that clearly advertises "passport photos."
2) You'll be looking at your picture for the next ten years. You might want to comb your hair and ask the photographer to give you a choice of shots.
If you already have a passport, you can renew it in person or by mail.
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