Nine tips for safe and smart summer travel

Even with rising gas prices, the travel industry is gearing up for a big year. After several years of staycations – vacationing at home or close to home – as a result of the slow economy, Americans seem more ready and willing to travel.

Whether you intend to take the quintessential great American road trip, that once-in-a-lifetime journey to Europe, a mission trip to Latin America or Africa, or a fly-in fishing vacation to Canada, it’s important to plan ahead. Planning what to do and what to wear is essential, of course, but what many travelers don’t realize is that traveling today is often complicated by numerous rules, regulations and laws, according to Findlaw.com, the Internet’s top source for legal information.

One such example is the recently enacted requirement of a passport – even for U.S. citizens – to enter the United States. Enacted in the name of homeland security, it’s a change in the law that has profoundly altered traveling over the U.S.-Canada border. For decades, you only needed a current driver’s license to cross the border – no more.

To make sure your next big trip goes smoothly, take some extra time to review these tips from FindLaw.com to avoid being scammed and to increase your safety and security while traveling.

* Check the law. Before you cross the border into Canada, Mexico or another country, check the laws about entering another country. For example, if you intend to travel into Canada, you may not be allowed to enter if you’re asked and you admit to a charge of driving under the influence. And even though you’re an American, you now must present a passport to re-enter the United States. If you’re roadtripping across state lines, make sure you have proof of auto insurance and auto registration in your glovebox and make sure your driver’s license is current. You may also want to clear up any old speeding or parking tickets that you may have in the state to which you are traveling, otherwise, you might find your car impounded in the event that you’re stopped for a traffic violation. The last thing you want to have to do is find a lawyer to handle an emergency legal matter while you’re on vacation.

* Emergency contact information. Create a list of emergency contacts, such as relatives, next door neighbors, doctors, dentists, pharmacy, etc., that emergency personnel can contact if you’re involved in an accident and are unable to respond on your own. Always leave a travel itinerary with your emergency contacts at home in the event that they need to contact you while you’re traveling.

* Vital documents. Make photocopies of key documents (passport) and cards (driver’s license, credit cards, health insurance card) should your wallet or purse become lost or stolen. Keep photocopies in a secure place where you can access them in case of an emergency.

* Dress the part. It’s always important to dress comfortably when you travel, but it’s also important to dress appropriately. To go through airport security more quickly, wear slip-on shoes, remove all metal objects from clothes, avoid wearing jackets, and keep cell phones, pagers and other personal electronics in a bag or briefcase. Study the culture where you are going and dress as the locals to avoid sticking out and calling attention to pickpockets and street vendors. When traveling to some local countries, wearing some types of jewelry, especially jewelry that expresses a religious faith, can cause you to become a target.

* Security screening. If you are uncomfortable with the full-body scanning process that has recently been implemented in airports across the United States, you have the right to request an alternative screening – typically an “enhanced pat down”by a Transportation Security Administration screener. If you’d like to record your experience through a security checkpoint, generally, the First Amendment allows you the right to do so. If you believe you’ve been treated unjustly and find it necessary to file a complaint against a TSA screener, the TSA has a Web form available to the public, along with organizations such as EPIC and ACLU, which collect body scanner incident reports.

* Avoid travel scams. As you’re making your travel plans, be leery of bargains that seem too good to be true – because 99 percent of the time, they are. It’s important to research a company’s background. How long has it been in business? Is the travel company affiliated with professional organizations such as the American Society of Travel Agents? Have other consumers filed complaints about the company with the Better Business Bureau or your state’s Attorney’s General office? Pay with a credit card so you can dispute the charges if the company does end up being fraudulent.

* Avoid these common scams. Whether you travel near or far, there are crooks whose goal is to part you from your money and belongings. The most common is the cab driver who takes the “scenic route.” Before you hop in the cab, know what route you want to take to your destination. Tell the driver and negotiate the price of the ride. Check with your hotel concierge about what a trip to a certain location typically will cost. Always avoid panhandlers and mobs of children – more often than not they’re well-trained in the art of pickpocketing.

* Cell phones: Many Americans would feel naked if they didn’t have their cell phones with them while traveling. If you plan to travel overseas or take a cruise outside the United States, check with your cell phone provider to see if your phone is capable of international calls. Instead of carrying their expensive cell phones, some travelers opt to rent cell phones overseas. And with the growing use of voice-over-Internet services like Skype, some travelers are checking in with family through computers that are readily available in hotels and cafes.

* Travel insurance. There are many types of travel insurance, and in many cases, you may already be covered. Call your health care insurance provider to see if you’re covered in the event of a medical emergency when traveling overseas. Contact your credit card company to see what travel-related benefits and insurance they offer. And contact your home and auto insurance provider about what your coverage is if you rent a car, or you experience a theft while traveling.

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