Ask the right questions to avoid the wrong trip Itinerary: If you plan well in advance and know where to find accurate travel information, your vacation can be smooth sailing.

April 28, 1996|By Harry Shattuck and Syd Kearney | Harry Shattuck and Syd Kearney,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

The first challenge in planning a vacation involves determining the right questions to ask.

Next, it's essential to find the best sources for accurate, objective answers, so you can choose a destination, plan an itinerary that will satisfy your interests and goals and make reservations.

Here are some frequently asked questions along with suggestions about how to obtain reliable information:

Is my destination safe?

The U.S. State Department maintains frequently updated information on potential danger spots around the world. Call (202) 647-5225 to hear a recorded message about current warnings and how to obtain information about countries of concern. Call (202) 647-3000 to obtain faxed reports.

Consular information sheets and warnings on individual countries also are available by writing the Bureau of Consular Affairs, Room 4811 N.S., Department of State, Washington, D.C. 20520. Specify which countries' sheets you desire, and enclose a self-addressed envelope with sufficient postage attached.

What inoculations will I need?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide recorded messages detailing required and recommended inoculations and up-to-date information about health concerns in international locations.

Call (404) 332-4559 or (404) 332-4555. You may also want to contact any travel medicine centers in your area.

What are consolidators, and are they reliable?

Consolidators -- sometimes known as bucket shops -- purchase airline tickets in bulk at huge discounts and sell them directly to the public or to travel agents, who then sell them to clients at prices below airlines' lowest fares.

While the price usually is good, travelers should be aware of potential inconveniences and pitfalls: Because airlines don't want it advertised that they deal with consolidators, uncertainty can exist about which airline is used until the ticket arrives. (Charter companies occasionally are used). Schedules often aren't firm until near the departure date and may include time-consuming connections.

Frequent-flier mileage and advance-seat selection may not be offered.

Some consolidators have been in business for a long time, but many come and go. It's a good idea to check a firm's credentials with the Better Business Bureau in its home city. Go to a travel agency you trust, and inquire if it does business with consolidators. Payment with a credit card allows better recourse if plans go awry. (Beware of consolidators that deal in cash only.) After a ticket arrives, confirm all aspects of a flight with the airline.

A good source that lists consolidators is the 1996 edition of "Consumer Reports Best Travel Deals" (Consumer Reports Books, $8.99).

Also valuable are "The Worldwide Guide to Cheap Airfares" (Insider Publications, $14.95) by Michael McColl and "Fly for Less" 1996 (Travel Publishing, $19.95).

Where can I find information on the lowest commercial airfares?

To get the most reliable information, consult a travel agent who has access to continually updated fare information. Or use airlines' sites on the World Wide Web to get fares for specific flights. Check daily, or even hourly, for changes.

When contacting airlines' reservations centers, don't settle for asking about a destination. Inquire about specific flights. Fares differ based on the day of travel or the time of day. A set number of seats may be offered at several fares on the same flight.

Should I join a frequent-flier program even if I'm not a frequent flier?

Yes. Frequent fliers gain access, through regular mailings, to information about bargains with the airline and with program partners -- hotel chains, car-rental firms, even flower shops. Even more significant, thousands of ways now exist to accumulate frequent-flier miles without ever leaving the ground.

Should I use a travel agent? Why? How do I find a good agent?

It makes sense to patronize a travel agent. Most charge nothing for their services (they are compensated by travel suppliers) and are either well-versed on a destination or know where to find the information you need. Unlike a specific airline, hotel, car-rental firm or cruise line, travel agencies can provide information -- and prices -- about many competing companies.

Chains that operate nationally, such as American Express and Carlson-Wagonlit, have solid reputations. So do smaller, local agencies that operate under an umbrella organization. Most neighborhood agencies are reliable, too, but it's a good idea to inquire about affiliation with the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) or another trade organization.

The best advice in selecting a travel agent is to follow the same criteria you use in picking a doctor or lawyer or even a grocery store.

Shop around until you find an agent with whom you are comfortable and who offers expertise about the destination or service involved.

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