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6 Tried-And-True Ways To Afford That Dream Vacation

By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

If you have perused those year-end lists of hot destinations, then wondered how you could afford any of those places, this column is for you.

A couple of financial whizzes shared their insights on making your travel dreams come true without financing them on your credit cards or limiting yourselves to calling a trip to the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nev., a vacation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Here are six ways to see the world and get the last laugh on the budget blues.

— Consider thinking about a budget as enabling rather than constricting, said Sean McQuay, a credit-card analyst with NerdWallet.com. That way, the goal becomes inspiring instead of punitive. Mind game? Maybe. But whether your ideal is Tokyo or Tonopah, skipping a famous-maker cuppa becomes not a sacrifice but a strategy that gets you closer to where you want to be.

The shift won’t happen immediately, he noted; it takes practice to reverse old ways of thinking.

— Make the goals realistic. When McQuay and his wife began their financial planning, they budgeted nothing for dinners out and entertainment. It was, in his words, a “disaster.” Again, deprivation isn’t the key; the destination dream is. So be gentle with yourself lest you burn out.

— Look at big-picture spending, he added. By percentage, where is your money going? You need not figure to the penny, but if you see that you’re spending, say, about 25 percent of your monthly income on eating out, you may be able to redirect that money into a vacation fund by making a meal that warms your El Nino-chilled bones and can also be reborn as a brown-bag lunch or two.

— Don’t spend money you don’t have to. Well, duh. But sometimes you don’t realize the tools you may have at hand. Wallaby Financial, designed to help consumers save, offers a database (www.walla.by/cardbase) that explains which cards have benefits that can help you save by not spending. It’s not just rewards cards; some cards offer benefits that mean you don’t have to shell out money, said Matthew Goldman, founder and chief executive of Wallaby Financial.

He cited, for instance, Chase Sapphire Preferred, which provides primary, not secondary, rental car coverage. That means you can skip the expensive buy-it-at-the-counter insurance every rental company seems to push and avoid using your own car insurance if you have to make a claim. (Of course, you must rent the car using the card or else you don’t get the benefit.)

— Consider buying status, Goldman said. You may not be able to buy yourself on to Hollywood’s A-list, but the right airline credit card (and we don’t mean the ones you get if you are the creme de la creme of spenders) means you may get preferred boarding and not have to pay for a checked bag.

If you were to fly American, for example, you would pay $25 for a checked bag. The Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard card costs $95 a year (free for the first year), so with four checked bags you’re ahead by $5 (or $100 if it’s your first year). This, of course, requires your loyalty; you, in turn, get to be in Group 1 for boarding too.

— Don’t waste money on foreign transaction fees, Goldman said. It used to be that many cards charged this fee for buying in foreign currency and converting that amount into dollars, but thanks to the improving economy and the corresponding improvement in credit-card competition (never mind that it’s a questionable fee to begin with), more cards are saying so long to that fee, which can add as much as 3 percent to your purchases abroad (or even to purchases you make from home if they’re from a company abroad).

©2016 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A hike in the Canadian Rockies is an example of the excursions offered by Road Scholar, an education-promoting travel service once called Elderhostel. (photo courtesy Eileen Knesper/Road Scholar)

Travel Dilemmas: TSA’s Precheck Revamped To Restrict Program To Paying Customers Only

By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Question: As a 100,000-mile flier each year for more than 15 years, I’ve had the Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck — expedited screening — for several years through the Global Entry Program. These programs are wonderful. However, I’ve noticed for two years or so that the TSA PreCheck lines are getting longer. That would not be a surprise as more people join. But I often talk with people in the line who did not sign up for the program and do not travel often and who are surprised they are in that line. They don’t know what they need to do (or not do — they start taking off their shoes, pulling out computer, etc.). I understand the TSA wants to get more people through, but it is frustrating.

—Greg Parsons, Pasadena, Calif.

Answer: We have good news and bad news, depending on who you are. TSA’s “managed inclusion” came to an end in mid-September.

That’s the program that allowed people who hadn’t paid for the privilege to get the same benefits as paying customers.

Those benefits: For $85 for five years through TSA or $100 as part of the Global Entry program (which also expedites re-entry into the U.S.), PreCheck members get to use faster lines and don’t have to remove shoes, jacket, laptop or liquids from carry-on bags.

PreCheck, we should note, does not exempt you from screening; it just makes it less a hassle. You still have to go through a detection device before you board a plane.

Before the program began to catch on, PreCheck lines often were empty, which seemed an inefficient use of TSA personnel. Enter managed inclusion, in which fliers who hadn’t paid their money got to enjoy life in the fast lane.

People who suddenly had the benefit were puzzled about why, but worse, they often didn’t know what they were supposed to do. Many went through the drill — shoes and jacket off, for instance — even though they didn’t have to.

For those of us who do know what to do, the newbies were like people on the top step of a full, downward-bound escalator who fall forward and start a toppling domino effect (but without bodily harm).

Our unhappiness about line crashers may have contributed slightly to the decision to end managed inclusion, but it was probably other issues with TSA, including an internal Homeland Security report, which ABC News got its hands on, that showed lapses in airport security.

There were other miscues as well. Sara Jane Olson got to use PreCheck at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Olson, you may recall, was convicted of trying to kill two Los Angeles police officers and has since been paroled. She was a member of the leftist group called Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped Patricia Hearst in 1974.

Not a ringing endorsement for managed inclusion. Here are some other changes as well, according to a TSA statement: “TSA has recently eliminated the practice of utilizing behavior detection officers and explosive trace detection sampling to direct certain passengers into TSA PreCheck expedited screening lanes.”

You can expect more scrutiny during the holiday season, given recent world events. That could include more checkpoints as you drive into the airport (meaning you should allow extra time). You may notice more TSA officers and may be able to spot the occasional plainclothes officer.

You won’t be able to miss the canine detection. There are about 800 dogs (mostly Belgian Malinois) working at U.S. airports as part of explosives detection, which is TSA’s biggest worry, said Nico Melendez, a TSA representative.

TSA faces an enormous task given the diversity of our nation’s airports. There’s a saying among airport administrators: If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport. There are about 400 airports you and I use to get to Grandma’s house, and each represents unique security challenges.

In 2014 TSA said it screened more than 653 million passengers — about 1.8 million a day. Agents confiscated more than 2,200 firearms, the vast majority of them loaded.

With that workload, should we give TSA a break? No. We can’t afford to. And for whatever its flaws, TSA certainly doesn’t want its legacy to be a security failure.

Making PreCheck do what it’s supposed to do is a first step — but it is one of many more on this road.

(Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Hawaiian Airlines via Flickr

 

Travel Dilemmas: 7 Tips On Trip Insurance

By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Reader Margo Kasdan of Seal Beach, California, recently asked On the Spot whether travel insurance advertising was a giant scare tactic to get people to buy insurance.

The answer is yes, of course it is. But don’t tune out the message just yet. In last week’s column, I promised to tell you seven things you need to know about travel insurance. The list isn’t exhaustive — exhausting, perhaps but not exhaustive — but includes some points to ponder.

Also know this: Robert Meeds, an associate professor of communications who teaches advertising at California State University, Fullerton, explained in last week’s column that a travel purchase is both an emotional and a rational decision, unlike, say, buying a refrigerator, which should be a rational decision unless you have an unusual relationship with your Frigidaire.

Because travelers tend to be savvy about not wasting money, it’s tempting to turn off the “what if” messages you hear in your head and forgo insurance.

And then terrorists attack targets in Paris and you are stranded. Or injured. Or worse.

Suddenly, the randomness of life becomes clearer and scarier.

That life is highly malleable is clear to Leon Rbibo, president of L.A.-based company Pearl Source and a thirtysomething who travels often to Asia for business. “Plans are never set in stone and are usually changing all the time, as is typical in the business world,” he said in an email. “This creates a huge need for travel insurance.”

Rbibo says he spends as much as $1,000 a month on travel insurance.

I’m also not impartial on this topic. I’m not a fan of spending money unnecessarily either, but I’ve also recently filed two travel insurance claims that helped me recoup most of my investment.

Those experiences, coupled with interviews with several experts, brings me to these seven points:

—Travel insurance can be helpful if you’re related to anyone of any age. I say this with tongue only partly in cheek. My two recent travel insurance experiences have stemmed from health emergencies with family members — one 9 months old and the other 94 years old.

Having an aged parent means issues will arise, but in my wildest dreams, I could not have anticipated the freak emergency that hospitalized our grandson for three weeks.

—Before you buy that insurance, please, please, please read the fine print. I promise you that you will be heartened, appalled, dismayed and comforted by what you see.

For instance, in comparing basic plans through InsureMyTrip.com, a travel insurance comparison site, I looked at three basic coverages, all about $550 for a hypothetical $10,000 trip to Australia in January.

Among the variables: Coverage for travel delay with policies Nos. 2 and 3 kicked in after six hours; policy No. 1 after 12 hours. The 12-hour plan paid $100 with a maximum of $500; No. 2 paid $150 but a $300 max and No. 3 paid $200 with a $1,000 max.

The dental insurance payout was $500 for Nos. 1 and 2 and $750 for No. 3. You’re apt to find coverage for things you never knew you needed.

Also think about what would be helpful to you, a slightly harder task, and make sure those are included.

—Be especially cognizant of such issues as pre-existing conditions. Those could nullify medical coverage, depending on the policy. Or you may be required to purchase the insurance within a certain amount of time — maybe within 14 days of buying your trip.

Be aware that the insurance company will dig into your medical history. When we made the sick-grandson claim, the insurance company demanded a year’s worth of medical records, which was impossible since he was 9 months old at the time. It’s also invasive. Be prepared.

—After you do the side-by-side comparison but before you buy, make sure you look at the policy’s certificate. On InsureMyTrip, you’ll see that certificate when you hit the buy button but you haven’t yet spent a dime.

You’ll see lots of asterisks and definitions. Read all of them. Print them out. A highlighter helps. And put them in a folder. The reason becomes clearer by Thinking Point 7.

—Before you push the buy button, check to see if the credit card you’re using offers travel insurance as a part of its benefits. To find out, go to your credit card’s site and start asking questions.

Ditto if you’re using a travel agent to book your trip. Many will carry insurance on you or offer it. Ask.

—If you decide not to buy insurance, make sure you have sufficient funds to get yourself home — a medical evacuation — or to cover your costs at a hospital or clinic. You are self-insuring, so carry a credit card with a good-sized line of credit for that reason, said Michael Feighan, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Chubb Accident & Health. (That’s not the only reason you may need that line of credit, he added, so it’s a good idea to have such a card any way.)

A really important note if you’re covered by Medicare and are traveling abroad: You may not be covered.

“Generally, Medicare does not provide coverage outside of the country,” said Rachael Taft of Squaremouth.com, a comparative travel insurance site. “For those travelers with Medicare, there are international medical plans that provide emergency medical coverage while traveling overseas.”

To learn more, read the fact sheet Medicare Coverage Outside the United States at www.lat.ms/1HX2FOJ.

—If you buy insurance, begin a file from the minute you hit the buy button. Keep every scrap of information. Take notes on every conversation. Copy your claim. Keep intimate details of your travel itinerary and copies of credit-card charges (and yes, always pay with a credit card).

Keep all this glorious paper in one file. You will need it. Sometimes you will need it over and over again.

You’ll also need it to check the company’s math. On our sick-baby claim, we found multiple errors and had to request corrections.

Of my two claims, that one was a bigger hassle. The other recent claim was much easier, partly because it involved “cancel-for-any-reason” insurance.

Cancel for any reason is what its name says. It costs more and pays out less, but in these uncertain times, it might be a way to go.

Insurance companies will tell you over and over again that being afraid to travel to a place is rarely a covered reason for canceling a trip, unless you have cancel for any reason.

Insurance companies also will tell you that a standard policy is designed to help you with what has happened, not with what might happen.

Should you spend the money? Travel insurance is not inexpensive. I liked what Peggy Goldman, president and co-owner of Friendly Planet Travel, a tour operator, told me: If you can afford the trip, you probably also can afford the insurance.

To which I would add this old chestnut: If you can afford to lose your investment, don’t buy the insurance. But remember, life is random.

(Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Sandrine Z via Wikimedia Commons

 

Travel Dilemmas: If Airfare Drops After You Buy A Ticket, Are You Entitled To A Refund?

By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Question: On Oct. 2, I bought a one-way ticket on Frontier Airlines and the fare with taxes was $59. Eight days later, I checked the website and the fare was $19. I asked Frontier for a charge back to my credit card; the agent said the airline doesn’t do that. I checked its contract of carriage, and there is nothing that prohibits a refund. Am I entitled to a refund?

—Rick Haynes, Palm Springs, Calif.

Answer: If you’re alive, probably not.

As consumers, we think that buying an airline ticket in advance is our hedge against airfare increases, and it very often is.

Except when it’s not.

“In the world of airfares, it’s critical to bear in mind the additional complexity of dynamic pricing,” said Andrew Jin, product manager for Flyr (www.getflyr.com), an airfare booking engine that tries to help buyers get the best deal.

That pricing, also known as yield management, “is there to accomplish one key goal: to ensure that each seat on the plane is sold to the highest bidder,” Jin said in an email.

“If the supply of seats sells out faster than expected, then prices are raised higher. After it goes up, the high price may deter customers, so the price is then lowered.”

Haynes apparently was one of those highest bidders.

He also was one of the majority of fliers who buys nonrefundable tickets. And on this point, Frontier is crystal clear: All Economy (its capitalization) fares are nonrefundable.

Frontier has a second, more lenient, fare category called Classic Plus (costs more), but there’s very little wiggle room with Economy except in the case of your death, in which case you can get your money back.

Refundability is key because generally you must rebook your ticket to get a lower fare (not just on Frontier but on almost every airline) and pay a change fee to do that. (Southwest does not charge change fees, by the way.)

For a domestic ticket, the change fee is $200, internationally it’s $300, but some change fees are as much as $850, said Rick Seaney, founder of FareCompare.

That often means that any difference you might realize is wiped out on a nonrefundable ticket.

Pretty nifty trick if you’re an airline.

Not so much if you’re a consumer.

But when you stop to think about it, should you be entitled to a refund if a price drops? If, for instance, you buy a cellphone just as it comes on the market and then, seven months later, when demand has cooled, the price drops, should you get a refund of the difference?

That may be a hypothetical with a cellphone, but that roll of the dice is a reality with airline tickets, whose prices do vary frequently.

You could spend your days watching and waiting to nab that price drop; you could use a service such as Yapta, which will keep an eye on airfare and hotel room prices and notify you if you’re eligible for a refund if you booked directly with the airline. (It does not handle Frontier tickets.)

“We are tracking (fares) 24/7,” said Jeff Pecor, a Yapta spokesman. “I think that’s incredibly valuable as (airline) revenue management becomes more and more sophisticated for consumers also to have a higher level of sophisticated (tools).”

Yapta does not charge for this service.

For a fee, you also can lock in fares on some booking engines (Flyr, among them) and with some airlines. And under Department of Transportation rules, you can book an airfare and cancel within 24 hours for a refund.

Booking an airfare isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes courage to put down your money, as Seaney points out, for something that’s immediately charged to your credit card and that you don’t use for several weeks — or, in some cases, ever.

“To travel is to live,” Hans Christian Andersen wrote in his autobiography “The Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography.” To which I might add, “Yeah, to live right on the edge.”

(Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Chicago O’Hare International Airport (Michael Kappel via Flickr)

Five Ways To Avoid Those Sky-High Airfare Change Fees

By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind,” Victor Frankenstein reflects in the Mary Shelley horror classic, “as a great and sudden change.”

These days, few things are as painful to the human pocketbook as a great and sudden change in your airline travel plans. A change in those plans can be so expensive it can feel like a bolt in the neck.

We travelers paid almost $3 billion in change fees last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, about the cost of seven A380s.

Nowadays, the fees for changes in a domestic ticket can be as much as $200 and often more than double that for an international flight, wiping out a big part of the value of your ticket.

If your plans change, you can avoid the dreaded fee, but it takes some doing (and sometimes some money). Let us count the ways you might escape them:

1. Buy a fully refundable ticket
Let’s say you are flying round trip from Los Angeles International Airport to Washington, D.C., on American in mid-October. A search on Monday showed a fare of $351 for a nonrefundable ticket, which is about 85 percent of all tickets sold. A fully refundable ticket costs $1,327. Whether it’s worth it depends on your needs and the peculiarities of your schedule.

2. Buy on an airline that doesn’t charge change fees
That usually means Southwest. If you have to rebook, you’ll have to pay the difference in fares. But there’s no charge for the change.

You won’t get your money back if you have to cancel the whole trip, but you will have a credit that you can use for a future flight.

George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog, also notes that Alaska Airlines will allow you to change without charge if your flight is 60 or more days away.

3. Buy a fare that offsets the cost of the fee
On American Airlines, you can buy a Choice Plus ticket. For the same October dates as above, I found a Choice Plus ticket for $511. For that, the change fee is waived, and you also get bonus miles plus a same-day flight change if you need it.

4. Change within 24 hours of booking
Some airlines allow you to hold a reservation for 24 hours without booking; some allow you to change as long as the flight is more than seven days away. They don’t have to do both.

But under the Department of Transportation rule, there should be no penalty if you decide to change (or cancel). You’ll have to read the website carefully to find out which option is offered.

5. Book with an airline that allows same-day changes
I just recently stumbled upon this when I wanted to come home early from a trip to Boston. American allowed me to switch my flight for $75. Among others that allow this: United ($75, unless you’re an elite flier) and Delta ($50, unless you’re an elite flier).

In fact, if you’re an elite flier, you’re going to escape many of the fees that plague the rest of us leisure travelers, who tend to buy on price. This means reading the terms and conditions in the airline small type, but it will save you big bucks.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Travel Dilemmas: Chip And PIN? Chip And Signature? Here’s What Travelers Should Know

By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Question: My credit union was the first of my credit card companies to send me the new chip and PIN card. It’s not that I don’t trust technology, but I’d like to test the card before I leave for Europe, and I haven’t yet found a store that has installed the new scanners. How do I know it will work? — Greg Nelson, Mission Viejo, Calif.

Answer: Nelson won’t know, but he may not have to worry because of the way U.S. cards will be handled abroad.

Before we get to that, everyone — traveler and non-traveler alike — should know that they probably will get “smart” credit (and, to a lesser extent, debit) cards this year. Although they won’t work quite the same way as the old swipe-and-sign (a.k.a. magnetic stripe) cards, they shouldn’t rock your world, either.

A smart credit card, sometimes called an EMV card (for Europay, MasterCard, Visa), contains a visible chip that’s designed to thwart criminals who counterfeit cards. The data breaches that have bedeviled some large companies shouldn’t be an issue (or as much of an issue) once the new smart cards are in broad use, experts say.

Card companies and merchants are working toward making the change to chip and PIN cards by Oct. 1, the date of what’s called the “liability shift.” That’s an important date because if fraud occurs, the financial responsibility is shifted to either the card company or the merchant — whichever party is found to have had the puny security that permitted the transgression. The good news is that it’s rarely, if ever, you, the consumer.

It’s estimated that by the end of this year, 70 percent of credit cards and a little more than 40 percent of debit cards will be chipped cards. Fraud may occur in the 30 percent and 60 percent, respectively, of cards that aren’t chipped, but again, it won’t be the consumer’s financial problem.

Fasten your seat belt, though, because here’s where it gets complicated. Many of the new chipped credit cards will be chip and signature cards. Like the old magnetic stripe cards, this credit card requires you to sign for the purchase.

But some cards will be chip and PIN cards, which is what Nelson is asking about. They require you to use a personal identification number to complete your purchase. (How will you know which one you have? “The easiest way to know which type of card you have is to simply call your bank and ask,” said Matt Schulz, a senior industry analyst with CreditCards.com.)

Both signature and PIN are smart cards, but sometimes a signature-only smart card (and the old magnetic stripe too) won’t work abroad, notably in unmanned kiosks; train tickets and gasoline purchases are two stumbling blocks I hear about most often from readers.

Those often have required the less-common chip and PIN card.

The PIN is another layer of protection that addresses the issue of lost and stolen credit cards, small potatoes compared with the massive counterfeit card problem.

Experts don’t agree on whether the PIN card is necessary, but if you’ve ever tried to buy a tube ticket in a hurry from an unmanned kiosk and your card has been rejected because it’s not chip and PIN, you’re thinking that card would be a godsend right about then.

But you may not need a chip and PIN after all. Both Visa and MasterCard told me that point-of-sale terminals abroad will work — even the unmanned ones — with chip and signature cards before Oct. 1.

That would appear to render moot the debate about signature versus PIN, at least when it comes to use. (Experts can and will continue to quarrel over the security issues to their hearts’ content.)

Whichever flavor of new chipped card you have, Nelson’s dilemma remains. “It’s a fabulous question,” said Joram Borenstein, vice president of Nice Actimize, a software vendor of risk and compliance technology. “That reader literally has very, very few options to test it out (before he) flies abroad.”

Testing, card experts say, has been extensive, so the card should work. But “should” doesn’t mean “will,” so Nelson may want to take a variety of financial tools with him in case one or two fail.

By now, you want to throw up your hands and say, “Why? Why? Why have they implemented a solution that doesn’t address all the problems with credit cards?” Because the chipped card isn’t the endgame.

Stephanie Ericksen, vice president of global risk products for Visa Inc., explained that the technology for the chip is a springboard for the next iteration of payments, which is mobile, such as the recently introduced Apple Pay.

After no change in payment systems for years, we are now in a time of acceleration when even that aforementioned seat belt may not be enough to keep your head from spinning. Stay tuned.

© 2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: Samsung Tomorrow via Flickr

The Top Trends In Travel For 2015

By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

If we had a crystal ball, using its intelligence to figure out how to be a thriftier, smarter, trendier traveler would bring a big payoff. We don’t have such an orb, but we do have some ideas on what the coming year holds for those who make the world their home.

Don’t expect a decrease in domestic airfares. Even though airlines are realizing good profits and fuel prices — always a big issue for carriers — are declining, you aren’t going to see those savings, said Warren Chang, vice president and general manager of Fly.com, an airfare search website. The good news: The average domestic airfare for Los Angeles International travelers in the second quarter of 2014, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, was $400, almost $70 less than the inflation-adjusted price in 1995.

Your European vacation may cost you less. The euro and the pound have weakened slightly against the dollar. That hotel room that was pegged at 200 euros last December would have cost you $274. This year? $248. And that 200-pound room? $326 last year, $312 this year. You won’t save enough to upgrade to a suite at Claridge’s in London or the Mandarin Oriental in Paris, but a drink at a pub or a sidewalk cafe after a long day is a decent reward.

Your airfare to Europe may cost less too. After several years of sky-high fares to Europe, prices may stabilize or even drop. It’s not because fuel prices are down. It’s because new or revitalized players (Norwegian Air Shuttle, Aeroflot) have turned up the heat on competition and because, when it comes to European airlines, there are more of them. Competition is the flier’s best friend.

Accumulating frequent-flier miles won’t be quite as easy. That will be true on some major airlines. United and Delta will base award points on how much you spend, not on how far you fly. (Southwest already uses this revenue-based model.) If you’re a price-sensitive flier, as many of us leisure travelers are, you won’t reap rewards for your loyalty the way the traveler whose tab is paid by the company or the trust fund does. No word yet from American on its plans for its programs, presumably because it’s busy working on the merger with US Airways. For those who want to play the game, branded credit cards may be the answer.

Your credit card may soon be a chipped smart card, thanks to the “liability shift.” When card fraud occurs, someone must take the financial fall, and beginning in October, the blame will be assigned to the entity (the bank or the merchant, but not you) that allowed the fraud to occur. The magnetic stripe cards — the standard in the U.S. — aren’t effective against large-scale fraud, so banks increasingly will shift to the chipped smart card, the standard in most places outside the U.S. “If chip was the standard … the Target and Home Depot breaches would not have been possible,” said Kevin Yuann, credit card manager for NerdWallet, a personal finance website.

But that doesn’t mean your new smart card will work at unmanned kiosks abroad. Some of the reissued cards will be chip and PIN cards, which require an access code like the one you use at an ATM. Those are the cards that usually are required at ticket machines, for instance, or gasoline stations. But some new U.S. cards will be chip and signature cards, which require only a signature, just as our magnetic stripe cards do now. Many automated points of sale abroad won’t accept them. Why not switch to what many say is the more secure chip and PIN card? Banks worry that the unfamiliarity of the chip and PIN will discourage users from making that card the card of choice, Yuann said. To find a card that suits you, go to NerdWallet’s guide at www.lat.ms/1BTwfT8.

Taking a car trip because of gas prices, expected to stay low in the coming months, is mostly a head trip. Who doesn’t love seeing gas prices at less than $3 a gallon? That makes a car trip seem like a bonanza of savings. It isn’t. The average car got 36 mpg in 2013, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Let’s say you decide to drive to Yellowstone National Park from Los Angeles, which is a little more than 2,000 miles round trip. In mid-December, the national average of a gallon of gas was $2.55. Fuel cost for your trip: about $142. A year ago at the same time? You would have spent $3.23 a gallon. Savings: $38. Even in an RV that gets 10 mpg, your savings is $136. Moral: If you’re planning a road trip, fuel costs aren’t where you’ll find savings.

Your passport may be valid, but you may not be able to enter certain countries. Many countries will not allow U.S. passport holders to enter if their passports are due to expire within six months (or sometimes three), said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brenda Sprague. If your passport is nine years old, it’s time to get a new one.

2015 will be the last year you can add pages to your passport. Some countries require a certain number of blank pages in your passport or visa. If you’re so well-traveled that your passport is out of room, you can have pages added to your passport. That comes to an end in 2015. Sprague, visiting the L.A. area in August, called that practice antiquated and said that, beginning in 2016, you’ll need to get a new passport.

You may not feel as crummy after a flight as new aircraft are added to carriers’ fleets. Most flights are pressurized to about 8,000 feet, but the new Boeing 787 is pressurized to about 6,000 feet. It will be, said Robert Mittelstaedt, dean emeritus of the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, “much more comfortable, especially for those with asthma, other breathing problems, or ears sensitive to pressure changes, even temporarily, such as during a cold.” Even if you don’t have those problems, you’ll be getting more oxygen, Mittelstaedt said, which should make you feel less as though you’ve been slugged in the head.

You’ll pay a little more for your rental car. That’s the word from American Express’ 2015 Business Travel Forecast, which predicts an increase of 0.5 percent to 1 percent for that domestic rental car. The good news for corporate customers, American Express said, is that they can push back against those rates because they have clout. The bad news for the rest of us? Like airlines, rental car companies have seen lots of consolidation, thus reducing competition and increasing your costs.

Stay in a luxury hotel and you’ll get service and style that’s more than a cut above. That may seem like a no-brainer — it is, after all, a luxury hotel so you don’t expect ugliness in service or style — but that AmEx forecast noted that the best hotels in 2015 will try even harder to differentiate themselves.

Furthermore, the cookie-cutter hotel is going the way of the dodo, said Sean Murphy, editor in chief for Jetsetter.com, which he calls an “inspirational hotel deal site.” “This is the age of the boutique hotel,” he said, meaning the experience must be unique. “The distinct hotel has character and some unique aspect to it that makes it the choice…. It provides experiences that are authentic.” It may be its architecture or its interior design, but above all, it will need to be memorable — in a good way.

You don’t have to use “sharing economy” travel services to benefit from them. The sharing economy, in which owners share/rent/lend assets to those who need them, is big and getting bigger. Many players in the field ran into big problems in 2014. AirBnB, which allows its hosts to rent rooms, tangled with taxing authorities in New York and San Francisco; Uber, the ride-on-demand company, has encountered regulatory issues from Nevada to Paris to Rio. With valuations of $10 billion or more (AirBnB) and as much as $40 billion (Uber), these companies have muscled into territory that once belonged to hotels and taxi companies, respectively.

Competition usually benefits the consumer, whether it’s saving money or spurring better service. Example? See next item.

If you’re traveling with family, hotels may do a better job of addressing your needs. That’s the word from Jon Eichelberger, regional manger for Trivago North America, a metasearch engine for hotels. Such entities as AirBnB fill a need for families that need room to spread out or cook, and hotels realize that they must do more to maintain or reclaim that market. Look for such amenities as child care or programs for children. Read more at this FlyerTalk forum: www.lat.ms/1ztRKJJ

And finally, 2015 will be the year of the cat. You may think this refers to the Chinese zodiac, but 2015 is the year of the sheep. No, we are talking about our four-footed friends, which seem to be the “it” critter. Cafes featuring the feline (they snuggle with you while you’re snacking or dining) have long been on the scene in Japan, but recently such establishments have sprung up in New York and Paris as well as in Vilnius, Lithuania (www.cat-cafe.lt), Madrid (www.lagatoteca.es) and Singapore (www.catcafe.com.sg). Two new ones are expected in Scotland in 2015. If you don’t like cats or find that fur and food don’t mix, stay away. For the rest of us missing our kitties while we’re on the road? Purrfect.

Photo: César Viteri Ramirez / flickr