When Travel Plans Take an Unexpected Turn

dangerby Nancy Bestor

Sometimes life doesn’t go the way we plan. That goes for traveling too. You can plan things to the very last detail, and wham!, you get blindsided by something that you never saw coming. That’s what happened to us last week regarding our upcoming spring break vacation. Last May we booked four tickets to Lima, Peru, and then on to Cusco, with plans for a four-day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu with SAS Travel. We purchased our United Airlines tickets with miles and a little money, our plane tickets from Lima to Cusco on LAN airlines with money ($1400), and we made a $1000 deposit with SAS using our credit card. Recently we’d been hiking and exercising as a family to get ready for the 28-mile hike on the Inca Trail, at elevations ranging from 9,000 to 14,000 feet. We’d gotten prescriptions for altitude sickness medicine, had a packing list going, and had even bought a few pieces of travel clothing (like this great lightweight but warm Storm Logic Jacket from ExOfficio) specifically for the journey.

But this is a story about getting blindsided: so here’s the bad news. The US State Department on February 13th issued a travel warning for Americans, stating that they had received credible information that a criminal organization may attempt to kidnap Americans in Cusco and Machu Picchu. On further research we found that a source stated that US intelligence had intercepted this information from the Shining Path guerillas, a group that last April kidnapped 36 oil and gas workers in Peru. All 36 workers were later freed, but several police and guerillas were killed in the release of the hostages. According to the un-named source, the Shining Path said they would begin after the rainy season, which ends in late March & early April. We planned to arrive on March 25. The State Department warning went on to say that US embassy employees are currently prohibited from personal travel to the region, and official travel has been “severely restricted.”

Well, you can imagine how Bob and I felt. We were planning to travel with our 16 and 18 year old daughters. We’re not travel chickens by any means, but this information certainly had us reconsidering our plans. After contemplating it for several days (with a few nights of tossing and turning thrown in for good measure) we were leaning towards canceling, but wanted to get Sarah and Emily’s opinions on the matter. Sarah immediately told us there was “no way” she was going, and Emily, after a few minutes of quiet reflection said “I agree with Sarah.” I can’t say I was surprised, as that’s what I thought too.

The truth is, this warning from the State Department could be an exaggeration. I feel fairly confident that Americans traveling to Machu Picchu next month will be safe. But we’re simply not willing to take chances, certainly not with our kids. And I’m not sure we would have been able to enjoy ourselves either. So we cancelled.

Over the weekend we started the process of trying to get refunds. I spoke to United Airlines twice last week, and both agents told me they could put the 320,000 miles and $300 in taxes back into our account, but it would cost $600. After charging us the $600, they said we could petition United Airlines, to try and get the $600 back. But, as is often the case with United, I called a third time and got a kinder customer service agent, who as it turns out, is also the mother to two teenage girls. She immediately put the miles back into our account, credited us for the $300 in taxes, and waived the charges. I liked her. A lot.

LAN airlines was also immediately willing to refund the entire $1400, although I had to wait on hold for 45 minutes for them to do it. The LAN representative I spoke to said she was sad for her country of Peru.

1127984_machu_picchuThe $1000 deposit to SAS Travel is another matter. The first couple of emails from SAS in response to our request were “pre-recorded” answers, saying there were no reasons to fear and the US State Department has “blown this out of proportion.” But since we are diligent, especially when it comes to our money, they finally have responded with a personal answer. Our deposit has been used to purchase hiking permits, and permits to enter Machu Picchu. Those permits are non-transferable. We’ve also paid for the porters/guides permits. So our hope is to get back that amount that is not for permits, alas, about $200. As for our spring break plans now, it turns out last minute travel bookings are very expensive. We’re checking out all our options, but not really sure what exactly will turn up.

So yes, we got blindsided, but in the grand scheme of things….

Easy Access to State Department Travel Updates

by Nancy Bestor

The first time we traveled to a third world country (Thailand, 2003), Bob’s sweet Aunt printed out the US State Department warnings for Thailand and presented them to us. Among other things, the state department recommended against riding in tuk-tuks (the three-wheeled motorcycle taxis). While we blatantly ignored the tuk-tuk advice and lived to tell the tale, as first time “third-world” travelers, it was handy to have a list of safety concerns (that apparently we could promptly dismiss) while on the road with our young children.

Today, the State Department offers travelers the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). STEP provides access to the latest travel information, warnings, and alerts for the country in which you will be traveling. Sign up and choose the countries you are interested in, and the State Department will send you an email whenever they update information about those countries. Enrolling in STEP can also help US citizens while traveling abroad. Now this was news to me. US consular officers can assist Americans with finding legal and medical assistance abroad, and can provide LOANS TO DESTITUTE AMERICANS. I wonder what the interest rate on those loans would be? I also wonder just how destitute a traveler would have to be? By enrolling in the STEP, it is also easier to get help abroad if your passport is lost or stolen.

Before Egypt started experiencing its recent political unrest, Bob and I were thinking about going to Cairo this coming fall. Out of curiosity, I pulled up the State Department’s information on Egypt. Not surprisingly, the warnings for Egypt discussed political unrest, complete with detailed info on recent problems and specifics on violence that has occurred. Egypt’s special circumstances of note also include warnings against photographing any Egyptian sites that can be broadly interpreted as military or “sensitive”. It also provides valuable information on health issues and medical facilities. I’m not an overly anxious traveler (as evidenced by ignoring the aforementioned tuk-tuk warnings), but it’s great to get a clear, concise and current picture of what is happening in a country when making plans to travel there.