Debunking a Dozen Travel Myths - MSN Travel Articles
Certain ideas have stuck around for decades like old wives’ tales. No, you can’t make ice cubes faster with hot water, and no, you can’t get in first class just by asking. Here are a dozen of the most widely believed travel myths, along with the truth about each.By Eric Lucas
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Two travel professionals, my dinner companions in Coventry, England, had just told me that they hadn’t been to London in years. Just a two-hour train ride away from shopping, theater and royal pageantry, and they didn’t go every other weekend?
“It’s cheaper and easier to get on a plane to Spain out of Birmingham, to tell the truth,” one explained. “Way cheaper, really. So, London versus Costa Brava? Two hundred pounds versus 50? Rain, sun?” He held his hands up in the universal shifting-weight scale.
That was my first clue that the famous axiom about getting around Europe — that trains are best — is a fable from simpler times. I later verified the truth of this on a three-week family trek around Scandinavia. We rented a car, spent less (far less) than it would have cost us on trains, and had infinitely more flexibility to wander up and down little country lanes.
When I did a little more research, I confirmed that my friends were right after all. The advent of low-cost airlines has made air travel cheaper, quicker and more convenient than rail. For instance, a flight on Easyjet from London to Paris in September costs $108; passage through the Chunnel on the Eurostar is $195.
So the European train myth is one of those enduring, apocryphal travel claims that you still hear and encounter in print. These inventions lurk around like old wives’ tales. Here are 11 additional travel myths; learn the truth about each, and from now on you’ll travel more wisely and well.
Dress well and ask nicely and you might get upgraded to first class: This silliness dates from the Howard Hughes era of aviation, when air travel was glamorous and airlines actually competed on service. Now the skies are ruled by cost structures and loyalty programs, and airlines reserve the front cabin for a select few: customers who buy first-class seats, passengers cashing in miles, elite frequent fliers, regular frequent fliers and passengers with promotional coupons, in that order. Asking? You may as well ask for special odds in Vegas.
U.S. airlines are required to compensate you if a cancellation is their fault: This fable is based on the so-called “Rule 240,” which no longer exists — thank the Reagan-era frenzy of deregulation. Today, there is no government requirement at all covering canceled flights. What happens to passengers depends on the particular airline’s “contract of carriage,” and these vary widely. You may or may not be rebooked on another airline; you may or may not be offered a hotel if you’re stuck overnight or a meal if it’s an all-day breakdown. Most U.S. airlines, at least grudgingly, provide some level of care, though. At the very least, they do have to honor their contract and get you to your destination, when possible. Want compensation if, say, you miss the first night of your honeymoon? Good luck.
For somewhat better treatment, fly in Europe, where EU regulations require airlines to perform more humanely.
Americans are the world’s worst tourists: Not even close. Expedia’s annual survey of 4,500 hotel managers worldwide placed Americans ninth-best among 27 nationalities. Japanese tourists were rated best overall, with Canadians, Australians (another supposedly much-despised group), Germans (ditto) and Dutch among the 10 best. And the worst tourists, dead last behind everyone else? The French.
Americans, by the way, were rated both loudest and the biggest tippers.
Jeans and sneakers brand you in Europe as an American rube: No, Europeans from the Baltic to the Mediterranean now all wear jeans and running shoes while they’re out and about during the day. However, you won’t see many Europeans clad this informally for evening events, so put on some slacks and a jacket for dinner. Want to make sure you look like a rube? Wear a polyester track suit.
Foreign travel is dangerous, especially in the developing world: Crime statistics are notoriously hard to compare, because each country reports differently. But the United States is definitely nowhere near the most law-abiding on Earth, and some measurements put its raw crime numbers at the top of the list. The United Kingdom, Finland, New Zealand and Holland are all, on a per capita basis, more dangerous than Russia, Slovakia, Zambia and Papua New Guinea.
Street food isn’t safe: Poppycock. In street markets and at food carts, you can watch the food being cooked, and stringent handling requirements have lessened food-borne illness in most countries. I’ve eaten street food in 20 foreign countries and not been sick once; add in the rest of my family, and we’ve ingested street food in more than 50 countries, all safely. Wandering through markets and sampling local foods is a superb way to save money, experience local culture and enjoy the genuine adventure of travel.
Cruises are all-inclusive — leave your wallet at home: That’s true only if you just eat cruise cafeteria food, sit on the deck in lounge chairs and never leave the ship. Superior dining, shore excursions, Internet access, some types of recreation (including spa access): All these can be and usually are subject to extra fees. Cruising experts suggest the average traveler should expect to spend up to 50 percent more than the base fare; less than that requires spending discipline.
It’s easy to use your phone in Europe or Asia: Yes, that’s the case if you are a tech genius, can “unlock” your phone, buy a SIM card, manage to open the phone and swap cards, pick the right local network and chat with the “help” staff in Croatian. And the “global” phones being advertised now by U.S. cell companies? These aren’t your ordinary everyday cell phones; you have to buy an upgraded model and sign up for extra-cost service. My family travels in Europe enough that we simply bought a European cell phone.
Really savvy travel shoppers can fly for less than $10 on budget airlines: No. Never. Only when pigs fly. Yes, there are occasions when various low-cost carriers advertise $9 fare sales, especially in Europe. I was in London last year when Ryanair did this (tickets were 9 pounds, in that case), and the British press slaughtered the event with great glee, booking theoretical tickets all around Europe that, when you added in the fees, taxes, surcharges and other extras, often came to a minimum of 100 pounds round-trip.
Some budget airlines have pushed the fee frenzy to the point that they charge for making the purchase, a deviously bizarre tactic if ever there was one: Yes, the fare may be $9 one way, but you have to pay an extra $10 fee to buy that $9 fare. In other words, you have to pay to pay.
You must have an International Drivers Permit to drive overseas: My American license has been sufficient in Germany, Finland, Sweden and the U.K. Generally speaking, visitors to most developed countries may drive with a legal license from their home country, as long as they are there for less than six months (in Great Britain, less than a year). However, it’s a really good idea to just pay the $10 that AAA charges for an IDP — it’s an extra layer of documentation that can allay the suspicions of the local traffic officer in Krakow who believes you were driving 20 kilometers over the speed limit.
The best time to buy travel is about six weeks before you go: The worldwide travel slump has thrown all such generalities out the window. Airplane seats, rental cars, hotel rooms and other travel items such as tours are commodities — especially now that billions of people worldwide can buy anything online — and commodity prices fluctuate in ways that even Einstein wouldn’t be able to predict.
Last January, for instance, you could have booked six months ahead for a 21-day South American journey or a 10-day Mediterranean cruise at unheard-of prices, sometimes $50/night. On the other hand, for the past six months I’ve consistently found the best rental-car prices by booking less than a week in advance; often, the same has held true for hotel rooms. It all depends on where you want to go, in what season and for how long. If continually saving money is your goal, continually tracking prices is the best strategy. You’ll learn how the particular market operates, and you’ll learn to recognize great prices when they pop up.
Now that I’ve debunked all these myths, get out there and start compiling your own catalog of things you thought you knew about travel that simply aren’t true. You’ll be a wiser and better citizen of the world for doing so.