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Published: Sunday, 3/30/2003

Travelers thinking twice

BY MIKE KELLY
BLADE TRAVEL WRITER
Cruise ships like these in the Port of Miami are still popular among American travelers, although some say they'd prefer to cruise not too far from U.S. shores. Cruise ships like these in the Port of Miami are still popular among American travelers, although some say they'd prefer to cruise not too far from U.S. shores.
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With war in Iraq and terrorist attacks a continuing threat in many parts of the world, it's little wonder that some travelers are thinking twice about going anywhere, while many of those who do decide to take a trip are sticking closer to home.

“International travel has been down anyway since 9/11, and yes, we have seen some cancellations and postponements since the war started,” said Deborah McEwen of Travel Resources International in Maumee.

“On the other hand, there are people who are saying, `We're not going to let fear rule our lives,' and they're continuing to book trips.”

Several local travel professionals said clients are calling them with concerns about whether this is a safe time to be traveling.

“I never try to convince somebody that they should travel,” said Theresa Macey of AAA Travel Agency. “But since we're at a heightened stage of alert, there's more security than ever, so a traveler is safer than ever.”

Ms. McEwen agreed. “Security is extremely tight now, but still, it's a personal choice whether or not to travel,” she said. “If you're afraid or uncomfortable about a trip, you're not going to enjoy it, so you probably shouldn't go.”

Travel to Europe is particularly dicey for some Americans, since Great Britain is an active ally in the U.S. war effort - and thus a possible target for reprisal attacks - while other European countries, such as France and Germany, have been outspoken critics of American involvement in Iraq.

But local travel agents say there's nothing wrong with going to Europe.

“I wouldn't discourage people from going to Europe, and I don't know of any tour companies that are canceling European trips,” said Valerie Sondergeld, of Central Travel in Northwood.

Some cruise lines have pulled their ships out of Europe and repositioned them for Caribbean cruises, she added, but that happened long before the current war began.

TRI's Ms. McEwen said she'd have no qualms about encouraging a client to visit Europe - or at least some parts of it.

“There's no problem with England or Ireland or some other countries over there,” she said, “but I don't think I'd suggest anybody go to France. Not because it wouldn't be safe, but because I'm not particularly anxious to support them at this time.”

As far as Caribbean trips go, Central Travel has two large groups of people scheduled for Caribbean cruises in the next few weeks, “and we haven't heard any concerns from any of them,” Ms. Sondergeld said.

Nevertheless, even foreign trips to nearby neighbors such as Canada concern some travelers. Ms McEwen noted one school group that had been scheduled for a Canadian trip in May, but said group leaders voiced concern about possible border closings or long security back-ups.

“Now we're looking at a different destination for them, probably Chicago,” she said.

In response to travelers' current jitters, many airlines, resorts, cruise lines, and hotels have loosened up on their cancellation policies, easing or eliminating penalties for travelers who want to back out of their bookings on short notice.

“The airlines are being fairly generous,” said Ms. McEwen, “re-issuing tickets but not charging a re-issue fee, and some of the tour companies are making 100 percent refunds for canceled trips.”

But policies vary widely from one travel business to another, so there's only one way to make sure what a particular airline or cruise line's rules are.

“They're all doing their own thing, so it's best to contact them, or have your travel agent contact them, to see what your situation is,” advised Ms. Macey.

Travelers will probably have more luck backing out of a trip without penalty if they booked it before the Iraq conflict began, according to Ms. Sondergeld. “If you book something now, knowing what's happening, they maybe wouldn't be willing to be so lenient,” she said.

The American Society of Travel Agents, an industry trade group, is calling on travel industry suppliers to liberalize their cancellation terms and re-booking fees during the war with Iraq. In addition, the group is asking airlines to waive their fees for issuing paper tickets.

Electronic tickets, or “e-tickets,” help travelers avoid long check-in lines at airports, but it's easier for passengers with paper tickets to transfer to another carrier in the event they need to re-book a flight at the last minute.

Trip cancellation insurance, which has long been available to travelers, is a better idea now than ever, say the travel agents.

“We always advise people to get the insurance,” said Ms. Sondergeld. “Even in the best of times, things can happen. We hate to have to say to somebody who's paid for a trip, `Sorry, but you lose that $2,000 because your spouse died and you have to cancel.'

“Now, though [with certain types of cancellation insurance], people might be more comfortable knowing that they can cancel for any reason - even if they just get more worried as the time approaches - and they can get their money back.”

Those willing to travel during wartime can find some good deals out there, particularly in cruises, but the problem there is that they might not be able to get good air fares to reach the cruise departure city.

“Last-minute flight deals are hard to get,” said Ms. Macey, explaining that most airlines have cut back their schedules in response to reduced business since 9/11, and some airlines that are experiencing severe financial difficulties have cut back even more.

But many cruise lines have begun sailing ships out of ports other than Florida in recent years, making it more feasible for travelers to drive to the cruise departure cities. Passenger ships now leave from places like Boston, Baltimore, New York City, Charleston, S.C., and Norfolk, Va., in addition to the standard departure points in Florida and along the West Coast.

Despite increased security measures, travelers are advised to remain alert no matter where they go. Ms. Sondergeld said she reminds her clients to simply be conscious of their surroundings.

“Be aware of where you're at. Whether you're in Cancun, Jamaica, or someplace else, when it's late at night there are certain areas where you don't want to be,” she said. “It's common sense. Just like here in Toledo, there are certain places you don't want to be late at light.”



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