Several weeks have passed since Leigh Smythe Merino hastily departed Paris following the terrorist attacks last month. The Alexandria, Virginia, resident had arrived for her first-ever visit to the French capital the morning of the mass assaults on November 13.
“I felt so many emotions at once,” Merino, 42, said in an interview this week. “I was so profoundly sad about the people who had died. I was scared for the people of Paris. I was anxious. I was conflicted about staying or going.”
She was staying at a friend’s apartment a short walk from the cafe where 19 people were killed and nine were injured. After several texts and a few phone calls with her husband back home in the States, Merino decided to leave Paris the next morning.
Now that some time has passed, Merino has had a chance to reflect on that day. She never before considered what to do in the event of an emergency departure from a city, but she feels better prepared now.
“I do not want to diminish the horror of the events of that day. But I hope my experience could help other people think on their feet and act quickly,” she said.
If you find yourself in a similar high-risk scenario — one that the U.S State Department has alerting us to in its latest travel warning — Merino offers the following advice:
Contact your airline as soon as possible to rebook your flight. Airlines will be aware of the situation and often will rebook you for free and with no questions asked. Merino was wise to email her husband back in Virginia and have him call United Airlines to schedule a new flight. Given the number of other fliers trying to rebook, Merino would have had a difficult time trying to get through to an agent in France. “My husband got through right away to a U.S.-based agent, and he easily got me on a new flight,” she said. “It took only minutes.”
Keep your wits about you. Merino admitted she wasn’t thinking as clearly as normal. But she took a deep breath and took a moment to prioritize what was most important: making sure her wallet and passport were handy yet secure. To locate her emergency credit card, in case she needed it. To keep her cell phone charged. To make sure her Uber app was working to get a ride to the airport the next morning.
Try to get rest. It was impossible to sleep that night, Merino said. Sirens sounded all night. She and her friend stayed glued to the news. A thousand thoughts kept her awake. “There was no way I would have been able to fall asleep,” she said. “But I expected the next day to be tough and I tried to rest as much as I could.” Same goes for eating well, staying hydrated and otherwise taking good care of yourself.
Go to the airport far, far earlier than usual. Merino had an 11:55 a.m. flight. Anticipating large crowds and heightened security, she arrived at the airport four hours before her flight. As it turned out, the airport was packed, and security lines were chaotic and slow-moving. (In fact, her flight departed 90 minutes late because so many passengers were still in security lines.)
Muster the most patience you’ve ever had. The experience at Charles de Gaulle was frustrating to say the least, Merino said. There were few staff controlling extra-large crowds, and only a handful of officers were working that Saturday morning at passport control. Lines became masses, and people became unruly. “I kept reminding myself to keep perspective,” she said. “People were going through far, far worse in Paris. I could handle this.”
Register your trip with your government. In advance of overseas travel, Merino said she’ll now register her trip with the U.S. State Department. Doing so can give you access to information from the local embassy as well as help friends and family at home contact you in an emergency. (U.S. citizens can register themselves here; other countries have similar programs.)
Obtain international cell service. Merino also said she will contact her cell phone service provider to make sure that her phone has temporary international service; she recommends the same for all travelers who can’t currently use her phone abroad as part of their current plans.
Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!
In this month’s winning review, a traveler enjoys an autumn trip to the capital of Ukraine, where she meets babushkas, visits monasteries and learns about recent political developments from a local guide. “Natasha … emotionally recalls the significant events and sacrifices of protesters killed by the crushing force of the riot police,” writes Lesley Williamson. “Hundreds of these young men’s portraits are honored with flowers and candles and for Natasha, such a public tribute to the nation’s heroes is poignant evidence that Ukraine is changing and that a newly independent country is emerging from its Russian legacy, timidly establishing itself with its own unique identity.”
Here’s another edition of our weekly travel news round-up, keeping travelers informed, inspired and entertained.
How to Fly Free Forever: Charge $170 Million on Your AmEx Card
A Chinese billionaire recently charged the purchase of a $170 million painting to his American Express card, racking up enough reward points to fly in first class for free for the rest of his life. USA Today estimates that he could fly in a first-class suite with Singapore Airlines some 3,000 times between Europe and the United States. (Wonder if he’d be interested in donating a few of those points to those of us with smaller credit card limits?!)
The First Debit Card for U.S. Travelers to Cuba Is Now Available
Speaking of spending money, it’s just gotten a little bit easier for American travelers headed to Cuba. Skift reports that a Florida bank is offering a debit card for Americans to use for hotel stays, restaurant meals and other purchases in Cuba. The card will not yet work at the island’s ATMs, though this may change next year.
Clever Tricks That Fix Common Packing Problems
This fun slideshow from Frommer’s offers nine ingenious packing hacks — from hiding extra cash in an empty deodorant tube to using straws to keep your necklaces from tangling — complete with GIFs that show you how to execute each one.
7 Keys to Traveling Without Fear Despite Terrorist Attacks
Wendy Perrin offers wise, practical advice to those feeling understandably jittery about traveling in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali. She explains why terrorism is so frightening but points out just how unlikely each of us is to be caught in this type of scenario as compared to other travel risks (such as car accidents).
As a reminder of the world’s beauty, we’ll wrap up this week’s travel round-up with an exquisite travel video from Bhutan, featuring golden Buddhas, fluttering prayer flags and friendly local faces creased with smiles.
You’ve seen them in the security line in front of you: globetrotters with passports so thick that they have to use thick rubber bands to keep them closed.
Soon, this will be a thing of the past.
Frequent travelers who run out of visa pages in their U.S. passports will no longer be able to order extra pages beginning January 1, the U.S. State Department announced last week. In 2016, if you run out of pages, you will need to order a new passport.
Previously, if you filled your passport with visas and entry and exit stamps, you could order an insert of 24 additional pages. The State Department is eliminating this option “for security reasons and to conform better with international passport standards,” according to a statement.
The standard U.S. passport contains 28 pages, 17 of which are reserved for visa entry and exit stamps. In 2014, the State Department began issuing 52-page passports (with 43 visa stamp pages) for no additional fee. (Renewing a passport through the State Department is currently $110.) Choosing a 52-page passport at the time of application or renewal is now the smartest option for frequent travelers.
The State Department will still issue the 24-page inserts through the end of the year and will still honor them at airports — so now is the time to order one if you need one. The cost is $82.
Routine passport processing via mail currently takes four to five weeks, according to the State Department. Expedited processing through the State Department takes two to three weeks.
This week’s travel puzzle is part of our ongoing Flag Friday series of challenges. Can you identify which nation the following flag belongs to?
Enter your guess in the comments below. You have until Monday, November 30, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.
Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Toni Sullivan, who correctly guessed that this week’s flag was from Uruguay. Toni has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations!
Here’s another edition of our favorite travel stories of the week. (If you missed the first edition last week, you can check it out here.)
Fodor’s Stands with Paris
In this moving post, the editor-in-chief of Fodor’s explains why she isn’t planning to cancel her holiday trip to Paris next month, even after the recent terrorist attacks.
No More International Roaming Charges? Here’s How
Conde Nast Traveler offers good news for travelers who like to stay connected: Verizon is now allowing customers to pay between $2 and $10 per day to use their phones abroad the same way they do in the United States, without worrying about expensive roaming charges. (The article also includes suggestions for those who use different cell phone carriers.)
Transparent Airplane Walls May Be in Air Travel’s Not-So-Distant Future
Fortune reports that Airbus is planning some revolutionary changes to the in-flight experience, including transparent airplane walls that will give new meaning to the phrase “window seat.” (If you’re afraid of heights, you’ll be able to use an opaque hologram to block the view.) Other potential changes: seats that adjust to your body size and themed “zones” where you can play games or interact with other passengers.
Starwood Devotees Greet Marriott Merger With Dread and Anger
Marriott International announced Monday that it will acquire Starwood Hotels & Resorts (which includes Sheraton, W, Le Meriden, Westin and several other chains). In this piece from the New York Times, frequent Starwood guests express their concerns about what will happen to their loyalty points and whether or not they’ll continue to enjoy the personalized service they’re used to after the merger.
Finally, have a laugh at this video of an Irishman on vacation in Las Vegas, who didn’t quite understand which way to point the GoPro camera he borrowed from his son. Instead of capturing the sights around town, he ended up filming his own face all over Sin City. Here’s the footage, spliced together (with a little musical embellishment) by his son Evan:
What do you do when wanderlust strikes, but you’re not in a position to indulge it? That’s a dilemma I often face this time of year, when work is busy with end-of-the-year deadlines and most of my budget and vacation time are allotted to family-focused holiday travel. The more restricted I am from traveling somewhere exotic, the more I want to go away.
One way I’ve found to cure an untimely travel itch is to watch TED Talks. TED is a nonprofit that aims to share ideas about all sorts of topics in the form of videos of 18 minutes or less. Topics range from business to science to self-help, and quite a few speakers have presented travel-themed talks too. I turn to them to satisfy my wanderlust.
Below are five of my favorite TED Talks to help you indulge your own escapist travel fantasies.
Photographer Chris Burkard is absolutely crazy — and I love it. He travels to the frigid ends of the Earth to take pictures, surf and, as he describes in this 10-minute video, go on a “personal crusade against the mundane.”
Tony Wheeler is the founder of the travel guidebook series Lonely Planet. His 17-minute presentation focuses on the unusual and seemingly dangerous places he likes to travel.
Kitra Cahana is a modern-day and self-proclaimed vagabond. As a child she traveled the world with her parents. When she became an adult, she found she couldn’t stop. She has spent her days documenting the lives of other nomads in the United States, which she discusses in this five-minute video.
Whenever I feel guilty about the amount of money I spend on travel, I watch videos like this one, in which Turkish presenter Gulhan Sen details how travel changes you for the better. Money well spent!
Modern-day explorer Ben Saunders was the youngest person ever to ski solo to the North Pole when he successfully completed his goal in 2004. He did a talk in 2006 about it, but I like the following talk even better — a general, 10-minute presentation on why we should all spend more time outdoors.
This week’s brainteaser is a Friday Word Puzzle. We’ll give you a category and the first letters of five countries that fall into that category, and you fill in the rest. Keep in mind that there may be more than one possible response for each letter. For examples, check out this blog post.
Ready to give it a try? Here’s this week’s challenge:
Enter your list of countries in the comments below. You have until Monday, November 16, 2015, at 11:59 p.m. ET to post your response. We’ll keep all comments private until then. On Tuesday morning we’ll choose one winner at random to receive an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Note: Although all are welcome to play, we can only ship prizes to the Continental U.S.
Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner is Margot Cushing, who has won an IndependentTraveler.com logo item. Congratulations! Check out the winning entry below.
We spend all day, every day reading travel stories from around the globe — and to keep you from having to do that too, we’ve rounded up our favorite articles of the week (as well as one hilarious video!). Have a read and learn something new.
Swim Team Makes Awesome Video During 7-Hour Airport Delay
We loved this video featuring members of the University of Louisville swim team, who found a way to entertain themselves during a lengthy flight delay in Raleigh-Durham. We’ll have to try some of these tricks the next time we’re on a people mover!
Since giving up his apartment in April 2014 to spend all of his time traveling, Schlappig now flies around 400,000 miles a year, nearly all of it in first or business class. If that weren’t amazing enough, he only pays for a small fraction of his flights out of pocket. Instead, he relies on airline miles and credit card points.
How does Schlappig — a 25-year-old travel consultant and blogger who runs the website One Mile at a Time — do it? And can ordinary people like us capitalize on credit card points and miles, even if we can’t make such a task our full-time jobs?
We caught up with Schlappig via email while he was in flight between London and Los Angeles to ask.
IndependentTraveler.com: Must you be a frequent traveler to be able to take advantage of mileage or points programs?
Ben Schlappig: Absolutely not! In the U.S. nowadays, more than half of miles are issued through non-flying means. Mileage programs have really gone from “frequent flier programs” to “frequent buyer programs,” as the possibilities for earnings miles are endless. You can earn miles through credit card spending, online shopping portals, car rentals and more.
IT: Is it better to spend credit card points on free airfare or free hotel stays?
BS: The loyalty program landscape for both airlines and hotels has changed considerably, especially over the past couple of years. Ultimately there are pros and cons to both airline and hotel credit cards. Which type of card makes more sense for you depends on what you value most out of your travels.
What I recommend doing is accruing points in a “transferrable” points currency (such as American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou and Starwood Preferred Guest), which allows you to transfer points to either airline or hotel transfer partners. This way you have a lot more flexibility with your points.
IT: Most people hoard their points, saving them up for a special occasion. Why is that a bad strategy?
BS: I have an “earn and burn” philosophy towards miles. That’s because miles devalue over time, as the number of miles needed for a given ticket creeps up. “Saving” miles long-term would be the equivalent of keeping cash in a checking account not accruing interest for decades on end. The best thing you can redeem your miles for is memorable travel experiences, and you’re generally best off doing that sooner rather than later.
IT: Do you tend to use airline miles more for free tickets or for upgrades?
BS: In general I try to redeem my miles for award tickets in international first and business class. These are the awards that tend to have the most value to me, given that the tickets would be disproportionately expensive if paying cash.
For example, if you’re redeeming American miles for travel to Asia, a business-class ticket costs less than two times as much as an economy ticket. However, if you were to pay cash, that ticket could cost five to 10 times as much.
IT: How much you’ve spent on travel in a year? And what’s the estimated the value of your free travel?
BS: Over half of my travel has been using miles and points. Given that many international first-class tickets retail for $25,000 or more roundtrip, I’d estimate the travel I’ve taken this year has probably retailed for somewhere around a million dollars. I spend a tiny, tiny fraction of that.
IT: What were some of your favorite destinations you’ve visited in 2015?
BS: This has been a great year for travel for me, and I have a hard time picking just a few. I’d say Egypt, the Maldives and Austria rank up there.
IT: Where haven’t you been yet that you really want to visit?
BS: I have a bit of an island obsession at the moment, as it’s not something I’ve focused much on previously. I’d love to visit Fiji, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Tahiti.
IT: The wanderlusters among us have been salivating recently at the exploits of frequent traveler Sam Huang, who scored a five-continent, first-class trip on Emirates Airlines for very little money by finding a (now-closed) loophole. Were you as jealous as we were?
BS: Every couple of months there seems to be a story that goes viral about someone redeeming miles for an incredible international first-class experience. Rather than the loophole as such, what I ultimately take away from these situations is that the general public really has no sense of how easy it can be to redeem miles for some amazing products. Most people never get to experience these products because they assume they could never afford them. But with miles it’s much more feasible than they think.