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Scott McMurren: Keep traveling overseas -- but make sure to plan ahead

  • Author: Scott McMurren
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 24, 2016

My heart goes out to the people of Brussels. I pray for the victims, as well as for the friends and families of those affected not just by the terrorist attacks in Brussels, but also in Istanbul, Paris, Jakarta, Ankara, San Bernardino, Mogadishu, Ouagadougou, Tunis, Mali and the Ivory Coast.

Do these recent terrorist attacks mean you should cancel your overseas travel? In a word, no. My friend and fellow travel writer John DiScala (aka "Johnny Jet") was in Amsterdam during the recent attack in Brussels. "The thing about terrorists is that they want us to stop our regular activities and to stop traveling … I'm not going to let these thugs scare me or alter my travel plans," he writes.

Nathan Lumo, editor of Travel + Leisure magazine, is more circumspect: "Terrorists may not be directly attacking the travel industry, but they do want to close societies, and travel works against their purposes. Travel fosters human understanding, and empathy for people whose lives are unlike your own; it opens your eyes to otherness, including other cultures and religions. Travelers are, ultimately, the enemies of terrorists, and what they believe works against terrorists' aims, person by person and little by little."

Accordingly, I'm going to Hong Kong. This will be my first trip — and I got a great deal on Delta ($547 round-trip). Part of the trip is to burn up some of the credit card points I've accumulated. It's one thing to accrue frequent-flier mileage points. But you have to use them, too. That's because the points lose value each and every year. Either the hotel or airline ups the amount required to redeem a prize, or there are more people scrambling for the same award. So, let three little words guide you: "earn and burn."

In this case, I use the Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa card. You can get 50,000 points when you sign up for the card if you spend $4,000 within three months. I've had the card for a couple of years, with a balance of 125,000. So, I moved 75,000 points to my Hyatt account to pay for five nights at the Hyatt Regency Tsim Sha Tsui. The rooms sell for $239 per night, so I thought that was a good deal.

I could have traded more points (20,000 per night) and stayed at the Grand Hyatt. Or, I could have shifted points to the IHG group (Holiday Inn, Intercontinental or Crowne Plaza).

The Chase card is good for shifting points to many partners, including airlines like Korean Air, United and British Airways. There are great hotel cards that include free nights just for getting the card. That includes IHG and Marriott. Other hotel cards give you enough points as a bonus to stay free for several nights. Marriott, for example, offers 80,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in the first three months.

Before any international journey, it's important to be familiar with some of the basics:

- Currency exchange: Typically the best rates are available when you use your debit card at a local ATM. Be sure and call your bank before you leave the U.S. Tell them when and where you're traveling and how long you'll be gone. Also, you should boost your daily withdrawal limit, which typically is set at $300 per day. Also, do not use your Alaska Airlines Visa credit card outside the U.S., unless you want to pay 3 percent extra on every single charge. Bank of America, the issuer of the card, calls this a "foreign transaction fee." I call it something else. There are many other credit cards that will not assess this fee.

- Connectivity: Some travelers swap out their cellphone SIM card on arrival and use a local SIM, available at convenience stores (this only works if you have an unlocked device). Others use portable Wi-Fi hotspots from providers like Xcomglobal.com. Still others check with their local cellphone provider for an international package, which typically is the most expensive option. But sometimes, it makes sense.

- Passports and visas: Be sure to check to see if you need a visa. Also, make sure your passport has some time on it. If you're flying nonstop on Condor Airlines over to Frankfurt, your passport must be valid for at least three months. Some countries require a six-month window.

- STEP, or Smart Traveler Enrollment Program: This is a free service for U.S. citizens to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy. You'll receive important information from the Embassy in the case of natural disaster, civil unrest or a family emergency.

Alaskans are energetic travelers and local travel agents are booking trips to Cuba, Africa, Vietnam and Europe. Here are some examples:

- "All eyes are on Cuba," said Bill Beck at Alaska Travel Source. "The folks we're working with have been to Cuba more than 50 times since 2002." They're offering a package for eight days and seven nights in four- to five-star hotels, including most meals, a Cuban guide and a variety of local experiences. The total cost varies upon your accommodations, but ranges from $2,995-$3,750. Airfare from Miami to Havana is included. Dates are available for individuals or groups. Call Beck: 907-562-2213.

- John Thiede of Eagle River specializes in trips to Africa. Bill Beck is handling the arrangements, but Thiede works hard on all of the details. His next trip is to Kenya next January. It includes intra-Kenya flights, game drives in six-passenger vans (everyone gets a window seat), all park entry fees, gratuities and a tour manager. This is a great trip for those who want to see a diversity of African wildlife including elephants, rhinos, gazelles, flamingos, leopards, cheetahs and more. The tour is limited to 18 participants. Cost is $5,950 per person, double. The tour starts and ends in Nairobi. International airfare is not included.

- River cruises are very popular, not just in Europe but in many rivers around the world. Jeanne Lentz of ABC Travel Time in Wasilla is offering travelers a choice of two cruises (below). Call her for more details at 907-376-5231.

Cruise 1: Cruise the Mekong River with Ama Waterways, departing on Nov. 14. Travelers meet in Ho Chi Minh City and board the riverboat Amadara. From there, sail upriver to Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat. There are pre- and post-cruise packages available for those who want to stay longer in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. The seven-night cruise starts at $1,999 per person if booked by March 31.

Cruise 2. Get on board the "Magnificent Europe" cruise in Amsterdam on May 1, 2017, for a 15-day voyage to Budapest. Stops include Cologne and other German towns, Vienna and Bratislava. All of the rooms on the ship are "outside," so you can view the shore from your cabin. All meals are included, as are the daily tours and excursions. Beer, wine and soft drinks also are provided. Free Wi-Fi is available on board. There are bikes on board for you to use on your own or as part of a tour. Prices start at $6,399 per person, not including airfare.

As you're planning for your overseas trip, don't miss the great travel opportunities right here in Alaska. I hope you'll join me for the Alaska Summer Showcase at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on Saturday, March 26. (Disclosure: I'm the producer of this event.) There will be a bunch of great travel companies on hand to help travelers jump-start their summer. There's live music from the Hannah Yoter Band and a food truck rodeo. Each of the companies is bringing a great travel prize to give away. Tickets are $8 in advance on Eventbrite, or $10 at the door. Kids 12 and under are free.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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