What rights do I have if my luggage is lost or damaged?
First off, nearly all "lost" luggage is in fact not lost, but delayed. If your bag doesn't show up at the carousel, report it immediately; the airline is responsible for delivering it to you wherever you're staying—at no charge. Only 2 percent of missing or delayed luggage is lost for good, but if you're in that unfortunate group, you'll have to itemize what was in the bag and sometimes even produce receipts. On domestic flights, an airline's liability for luggage is capped at $3,300—per passenger, not per bag—and there are all sorts of loopholes: Breakable items like musical instruments and electronics that aren't packed in hard-sided cases are often not covered for damage. Neither are your suitcases themselves. (Weirdly, liability on most international flights is even less—about $1,500 per passenger.)
Which brings me to an important point: Putting anything remotely fragile or valuable in a checked bag is just asking for trouble. Stick that stuff in a carry-on. For that matter, it's best to travel with a carry-on only; that way, your luggage won't disappear, and you won't have to pay to check it. Travelers are getting the message: U.S. carriers lost 1.3 million fewer bags in 2008 than 2007, at least in part because new airline fees resulted in fewer checked bags.
If my flight is canceled while I'm at the airport, is there anything I can do other than wait around with the other passengers for the airline to rebook us?
Yes. Whip out your cell phone and call the airline—because while the two agents at the counter will be overwhelmed trying to rebook an entire plane's worth of passengers, a telephone rep may be able to help you in minutes. Put the carrier's phone number into your cell phone right after you buy your ticket. If you have an iPhone, download the free Kayak app, which has a built-in directory of carrier hotlines.
Will my health insurance cover me overseas?
As with most insurance issues, the answer's not so simple. The first step is to call your provider before your trip and ask what coverage you have in your destination. Many health plans pay for care abroad only in emergency situations. Mild cases—your basic cold, a little poison ivy, a scraped knee—probably won't be covered. But chest pains or a possibly broken wrist? Insurers should pay for you to get checked out, even if it winds up that you only had indigestion or a slight sprain. You'll most likely have to pay out of pocket for all hospital and doctors' visits overseas and then submit claims back in the U.S., so you absolutely need to keep receipts.
I get a lot of sales pitches for travel insurance. Is it ever worth the money?
If this tells you anything, I've been covering the travel industry for a decade, and I've never bought travel insurance. But I also know that there are situations in which insurance makes a lot of sense. If all you're booking is a flight and a hotel (which can usually be changed for a $100 fee or less), then insurance isn't worth it. But if you're looking at a pricey trip with strict change policies—safari, cruise, villa rental—you'd basically have to eat the money you paid up front if you canceled at the last minute. Compared to that, travel insurance, which generally adds less than 10 percent to your total vacation cost, can be a bargain. Insurance is also sensible if you're leaving the country and your only health coverage is via Medicare or Medicaid, which pay no health costs incurred by Americans beyond our borders.
If you do purchase insurance, shop around with policy-comparison sites like insuremytrip.com and squaremouth.com. Pay special attention to the plans' trip-cancellation and trip-interruption policies; they state the specific situations in which you are covered—things like illness or injury, death of a family member, and even getting laid off from your job. Every policy is a little different, and if a potential situation is not spelled out, you're probably not covered. Finally, be wary of a travel agent pushing one brand of insurance: The agent may be giving you the hard sell because that insurer pays a big commission.
Besides running for my life, what should I do if I'm caught in a natural disaster or a terrorist attack?
Let's back up. The scariest thing about disasters—at least to me—is that they're out of your control. But there are a few steps you can take to set up safeguards. First, before planning a trip to a foreign country—any foreign country—check out the State Department's warnings and advisories at travel.state.gov. Warnings tend to be about places far down on leisure travelers' agendas—Gabon, Yemen, Afghanistan—but if there is a warning, take it seriously and be ready to cancel. Of course, even if you're just going to London (or Madrid, or Mumbai, etc.), there's a chance things could go really wrong, so e-mail your itinerary to friends and family, and text or e-mail updates to them regularly. Also, register your trip with the State Department at travel.state.gov. That way, someone can find you in an emergency. And if the you-know-what really does hit the fan? Do the obvious and get out of harm's way pronto. Then contact a U.S. embassy, which will help supply safe harbor and evacuations, if necessary. Often they're not—in which case I suggest making a few friends at the hotel bar and waiting it out.
For more information:
Country-by-country updates on disease outbreaks, and suggested vaccinations
How to file a complaint against an airline—and when it's wise to do so
Forecasts and safety advice from the National Hurricane Center
Travel warnings and emergency assistance abroad, and contacts for U.S. embassies and consulates
Updates on the latest rules for airport security
How to avoid food illnesses, plus other tips from the World Health Organization