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How do I…? A traveler’s guide to commonly asked questions

SmarterTravel

I get lots of questions that initially sound very simple, but usually aren’t. Since we at SmarterTravel.com live with travel stuff all the time, it’s easy to forget that lots of consumers shouldn’t be expected to know all the ins and outs. So, this week, I’m answering some very basic (and frequent) questions that really aren’t as simple as they sound.

How to get there

“How do I get from Kampen to Chelm?” Answering even a question as basic as that can require more digging than you might think. A reader recently asked about traveling from Sacramento, California, to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, but that question could equally well apply to thousands of other trips around the U.S.

Sacramento, of course, poses no problem, since it’s a large city with lots of air service. But Detroit Lakes is another matter, as are hundreds of smaller U.S. cities. The first step is to check whether a small city you want to visit has any direct air service. The easiest way is to log onto an online site that can provide this information. While sites that sell travel will usually work, I prefer to use a pure-schedule site, such SmarterTravel.com’s
flight search engine. Click on the “flight schedules” button, then enter your origin and destination cities in the box (at this point, dates don’t matter). If either your origin or destination has more than one airport, check either the one(s) you prefer or check them all if you aren’t sure.

If both points enjoy air service, you’ll immediately see available schedules; you can then start worrying about airfares. But if the site says “no service,” log onto a map program such as Mapblast.com and enter the city and state. (I like Mapblast because you can enlarge the map to fill almost the full screen.) Zoom out a level or two until you can spot nearby, larger towns likely to have air service. In case of Detroit Lakes, Fargo, North Dakota, jumps out as an obvious choice. Re-enter Fargo in the schedule program and you get your flights. Sometimes, you may find two or three possible cities; check on each.

Finding the best airfare

“How do I get the best airfare from Kampen to Chelm?” That, of course, is closely related to the question of how to make the trip, and we often get questions about specific trips. And the answer is fairly complicated, since it depends on a lot of trip particulars that vary from traveler to traveler: season, date flexibility, lead time, and such.
Rather than attempt a short answer here, I refer you to an extended discussion of airfare shopping in SmarterTravel.com’s Airfare 101. I would add only that you should also sign up for one or more newsletters and heads-up fare notification services. Start here at SmarterTravel.com; also consider Travelocity’s “Fare Watcher” that keeps tabs on specific routes and notifies you of special deals. And if you’re flying somewhere Southwest flies, sign up for that airline’s “Ding” service that actually beeps your computer when the airline has a special deal for you.

Visas and assorted red tape

“Do I need a visa to travel to Pangaea, and if so, how do I get one?” A reader recently asked about a visa to the U.K., and while that’s easy for U.S. citizens (we don’t need visas for short U.K. visits), it illustrates how you might check for just about any country. The best place to start is with the U.S. State Department’s Consular Information Sheets where you click on the country(ies) you want to visit. Each country’s sheet includes an “Entry Requirements” section that details what you need. It also provides links to a county’s own site for more detail, including how and where to apply for visas. The sheets are also useful for general information about places you’re visiting, along with links to any possible warnings about security, crime, or other potential problems.

You need a passport before you can start with the visas. Then, getting visas usually requires either visiting or sending your passport to a country’s nearby consulate or embassy. If you’re in a time crunch, several private services will schlep your applications around for you—for a price. Among those are A Briggs, PassportsPlus, Priority Passports, and
Zierer Visa Service, all of which also expedite passport applications.

Best deals on theater tickets

“I’m going to London at the end of September. Should I try to buy theater tickets before I leave or once I get there?” Although the question was specific to London, it might well apply to New York, Toronto, Chicago, and other cities with an active theatrical life.

Several online brokers specialize in out-of-town theater tickets; buy tickets online, with a credit card, from any of them:

You can also book directly with a theater, either by phone or (increasingly) online, using your regular credit card. The best place to start—for information without a sales pitch—is London Theatre Guide, an outstanding reference to just about everything you’d ever want to know about the London stage scene. It shows what’s on and what’s coming, theater phone numbers, and box-office prices (invaluable for reality checks if you’re dealing with a broker). That site notes that buying directly from a theater is likely to be less expensive than dealing with an online broker, even after you figure in the cost of the transatlantic phone call or fax. It also discusses the ins and outs of using London’s famed half-price booth.

My take: If you’ve identified a few top shows you really want to see, buy tickets as soon as your trip plans are firm. But don’t fill your entire schedule; instead, figure on taking in one or two of the better options at the half-price booth.

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